Mitt Romney delivered a “major” speech on foreign policy on Monday, although that designation of import comes from Romney’s own campaign, and hardly seems warranted. Romney added little to his previous positions–most of them fairly similar to President Obama’s, and spelled out as recently as late July (that one was also a “major” address)–on trouble spots like Afghanistan, Israel, Syria and Iran. What’s new here is the frame. This was Romney’s most explicit effort yet to link the recent anti-American protests in the Arab world–and the murder of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in Benghazi–to his thesis that Obama has allowed America to appear dangerously weak to the outside world. Here’s the crux:
The attacks against us in Libya were not an isolated incident. They were accompanied by anti-American riots in nearly two dozen other countries, mostly in the Middle East, but also in Africa and Asia. Our embassies have been attacked. Our flag has been burned. Many of our citizens have been threatened and driven from their overseas homes by vicious mobs shouting “Death to America.” These mobs hoisted the black banner of Islamic extremism over American embassies on the anniversary of 9/11.
As the dust settles, as the murdered are buried, Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown worse and what this calls on America to do. These are the right questions, and I’ve come here today to offer a larger perspective on these tragic recent events and to share with you and to share with all Americans my vision for a freer, more prosperous and more peaceful world.
Romney’s chief complaint is that Obama has failed to “lead,” and has provided unreliable support to our “allies,” though by “allies” he really just seems to mean Israel. In tangible terms, Romney’s idea of providing more leadership mainly seems to consists of spending more on defense. “I’ll roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military,” Romney said. It’s unclear whether Romney is referring here to the automatic Pentagon spending cuts that are part of last year’s budget sequestration deal between Obama and Congress, which certainly would cut deep if enacted (though they probably won’t be), or the more modest reductions Obama has been implementing over the past few years with the support of, among others, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, no left-winger he. If it’s the former, blaming Obama alone, without mentioning Congress, is highly unfair. If it’s the latter, calling the cuts “deep and arbitrary” and devastating to the military is a real stretch.
As for leadership, it’s a complicated question. There’s probably a case to be made that Obama has made errors in his management of the Arab Spring, particularly when it comes to personal diplomacy in the Middle East. But that’s not Romney’s case, which seems based on rhetorical swagger and affirmations of American greatness and determination. His specific prescriptions for dealing with the Arab world seem limited to providing more support (though not actually direct military action) for Syrian rebels “who share our values” and conditioning American aid to Egypt. But for all his talk of leadership, Romney skips over many of the toughest questions, like dealing with nuclear-armed Pakistan (mentioned once in passing today) and what a post-2014 Afghanistan should look like once U.S.-led combat operations are over.
Ultimately, then, this is a political speech. Just as Romney’s last light-on-specifics national security address came off primarily as an effort to make headlines about national security leaks, this one mostly seems like a renewed effort to hang the recent anti-American unrest and violence in the Arab world around the president’s neck. It may well be an effective political attack, but there’s nothing very “major” about it.