The Middle East Channel

Plenty of war clouds but no daylight in Governor Romney's speech

Governor Romney's foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) today focused almost exclusively on the broader Middle East region. The speech was predictably light on the policy details of what a Romney presidency would actually do differently and just as predictably heavy in its finger-wagging at President Barack Obama's supposed failure of leadership. True, the "Mitt hearts Israel" parts of the speech were even more to be expected: then again those barely belong in the category of "foreign" policy.

National security is unlikely to become a particularly challenging electoral issue for the president or a winning card for Governor Romney. If anything, Obama's circumspect attitude toward war is likely to play better than the flame-throwing Romney displayed today. And yet, the speech did tell us quite a bit about the tensions inherent in doing Republican foreign policy in the post-Bush era. If there is to be a Romney presidency then, based on this VMI speech, a number of those tensions will surface rather quickly -- here are five for starters:

1.  Romney claimed "No friend of America will question our commitment to support them... no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them... and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America's capability to back up our words."

The governor dressed this all up rather nicely as a recipe for a more peaceful world. Hokum. Real follow through on what Romney promised can lead to only one outcome, repeated many times over -- war, war, and more war. But war is a harder sell in 2012 to most Americans. War is particularly unappealing to those parts of the Republican constituency with either a more libertarian (or just plain old conservative) view of America's role in the world, or to those with at least a rudimentary grasp of math to figure out what massive overseas military adventures do to their deficit and small government obsessions.

Will just providing arms to the Syrian insurgency really be enough to do the trick? Are more sanctions going to get Iran to capitulate? Mitt even called leaving Iraq after only a decade an "abrupt withdrawal." Romney refuses to own or argue for the real implications of what he is saying. If his words are to be taken seriously, then Romney is committing the United States to a path of military intervention in the Middle East that will make the Bush years seem like a cakewalk after all.

2.  Romney committed to "reaffirm our historic ties to Israel-the world must never see any daylight between our two nations." At the same time he bemoaned "that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East." 

Enjoy squaring that circle, governor. Assuming that one can treat the people of that region like imbecilic children in the expectation that it will all work out fine and be of no consequence is apparently still in vogue in certain GOP circles. And gushing over Israel can never be taken too far given the largesse on display from Israel-centric funder Sheldon Adelson.

The United States should not outsource its foreign policy or have "no daylight" between itself and any external actor, let alone an Israeli government evermore egregious in its denial of dignity and freedom to Palestinians (values which Romney and the United States claim to support). Hypocrisy on any issue is hardly breaking news. But to ignore the centrality accorded to the Israel-Palestine conflict by every U.S. CentCom Commander since 9/11 and to embrace a "no daylight with Israel" policy as part of the recipe for winning new friends in a democratizing region takes ignorance of the Middle East to new levels.

Of course Romney doesn't just contradict himself on the Israel issue. That other constant cringe-raiser of U.S. regional policy also featured in the VMI speech occurred when Romney promised to "deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf"  while simultaneously professing his support for "the dignity that comes with freedom, and opportunity, and the right to live under laws of our own making." Let's hope Romney was at least crossing his fingers behind his back.

3.  Perhaps one of the few surprising lines in Romney's speech was the following: "I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state." Hmm. That might also be rather hard to reconcile with his commitment to no daylight with "our closest ally" Israel. One of two things might be going on here. Either Romney believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning a real November surprise -- withdrawal from the West Bank and East Jerusalem to facilitate a Palestinian state.

Or perhaps Romney's choice of words in this sentence was no coincidence. Romney described the attributes necessary for a Palestinian state as follows: "democratic and prosperous." He dropped the word that almost always is used to define that state in global diplo-jargon (including by the Bush 42 administration) -- "viable," shorthand for a state with contiguous territory approximating the 1967 lines division, with external borders, with a capital in Jerusalem, etc. Perhaps Romney supports a non-viable Palestinian state, otherwise known as a Bantustan, in which case he has a partner in PM Netanyahu, and no problem with the "no daylight" clause. Otherwise the United States will be paying a whole new price for its unenviable relationship with Israel -- one it has never paid in full in the past, having never, under any president, taken that extra step from the obsequious zone to the heady heights of "no daylight."

4.  In what could go down as another partial departure from the anticipated script, Romney expressed his intention to shape the region not only via threats and military muscle but also with the cheque book of soft power, via aid and assistance. Romney spoke of providing "tangible support... including clear conditions on our aid."

There is just a teeny-weeny problem on this front. Leverage derived from conditioning monies requires a magnitude, a bottom line of aid budgets that will grab people's attention and be hard not to jump through hoops for. Good luck with teasing out enough aid to make that happen when you are working with a GOP Congressional caucus committed to emaciating the foreign appropriations budget. And that's before we get into the backlash effect such a position can engender, especially when some of the prospective recipients of your "conditioned assistance" just went through hard upheavals in order to assert their own dignity by overthrowing U.S. allied authoritarian rulers on whom U.S. assistance was rather unconditionally showered (at least not predicated on internal democratic norms).

5. Finally, Romney's foreign policy seems to exist in a parallel universe to his domestic policy. Talking to the Midwest, Mitt wants to invest in your small business and ease your tax burden. Talking to the Mideast, Mitt wants to intervene in your conflicts and threaten endless wars on your soil. This was a speech rich with scare-mongering on Iran and al Qaeda and criticizing Obama as being fond of saying that "The tide of war is receding."

How can such a militarily interventionist foreign policy co-exist with a deficit-centric approach to economic policy at home? First, it can't (see under Bush 42; Iraq; Afghanistan; budget deficit). Second, education, healthcare, social spending, and infrastructure projects will all compete with and presumably lose to military spending, imperial over-reach, and nation-building everywhere but in the United States.

But there might be one way to win over (or at least silence) the Republican small government domestic base in the face of the Republican neoconservative foreign policy wonks with their fingerprints on todays VMI speech -- it's called weaponized Keynesianism. Weaponized Keynesianism, when you think about it, is probably the best policy available for a Romney administration. Based on his own past, Romney is probably aware that the U.S. economy is in need of more, not less, government spending on a recovery program with heavy dollops of federal funding. How then to convince his own party, even his own Veep?

Well, they probably can't be convinced to invest in building schools, roads, or hospitals for Americans, but, with the encouragement of the neocons still somehow in charge of Republican foreign policy, they can be called to the flag to spend public money to build warships (15 a year promised today) to send to the Gulf, to invest in a bloated military, and to go back to wasting lives and lucre on faraway Arabian (or Persian) shores. Weaponized Keynesianism -- it's what Governor Romney just promised America, the Middle East, and the world. 

Daniel Levy is a Senior Fellow and the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a Senior Research Fellow at the New America Foundation.

JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages

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