Mitt Romney gave a speech at the Virginia Military Institute today which focuses on U.S. Middle East policy. There are some good points in this speech that are definite steps forward. Romney sounded like a president should, someone who grasps power politics, deterrence, credibility, supporting allies and opposing enemies, and all the basic principles that have been largely vanished by the Obama Administration in exchange for unworkable and dangerous concepts.
This speech will no doubt consolidate his supporters. Yet without challenging President Barack Obama’s policy with more detail or confronting the revolutionary Islamist threat more directly, can Romney persuade people that his strategy would be much better than that of the man under whose presidency Usama bin Ladin was killed (but al-Qaida and the Taliban weren’t defeated) even though Egypt was lost as a U.S. ally? Presumably that will come in the foreign policy presidential debate.
The best parts were on Israel, Syria, how Obama empowered America’s enemies, and the importance for American leadership. Romney also makes it clear that America is not the villain of the world, a point often obscured–to say the least–by the current president.
He quoted George Marshall, who led the U.S. military during World War II and later became secretary of state and secretary of defense: “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” Those words were true in his time — and they still echo in ours.
Romney views President Barack Obama as vulnerable on his international leadership, or rather lack of it. Romney argues that Obama’s policies are contributing to regional instability and future wars in the Middle East:
Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more—more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies.
The attacks on America last month…are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East….
Romney further says that the cause of the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya was not a video:
[It was] terrorists who use violence to impose their dark ideology on others, especially women and girls; who are fighting to control much of the Middle East today; and who seek to wage perpetual war on the West.
Here, Romney does not recognize the systematic revolutionary Islamist challenge to U.S. interests. We are back on the safe ground — on which Obama basically agrees — that the problem is just al-Qaeda, rather than also the Muslim Brotherhood and other Salafist groups. (Obama’s problem is that having said he already defeated al-Qaeda, he cannot admit that this supposedly destroyed group just assassinated an American ambassador.)
If Romney wants to focus his policy on just al-Qaeda, how can he compete with Obama’s ability to point out that he killed Osama bin Laden? One could even argue that Romney’s approach — the problem is bad terrorists who kill Americans — plays into Obama’s hands.
Obviously, Romney should not foreclose his options in dealing with Egypt, for example, by declaring its regime to be an enemy — despite the fact that even Obama has admitted it is no longer an ally. Yet Romney could have done better in defining the situation.
But here is the best phrase in the speech:
The greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.
This suggests that Romney “gets it,” regarding the need to support real moderate or at least anti-Islamist forces.
So what would Romney do if he became president? He says:
I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf the region — and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions — not just words — that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.
Romney is basically saying: I will be credibly tougher. The problem is that Obama can say that he has done these specific things. He does not deal with the wider strategic problem of Iranian ambitions or attitudes toward the opposition in that country. There is no substantive difference with Obama’s stated policy, nor is there a discussion — it is understandable that Romney wants to avoid this — of how he would view an attack on Iran or even the possibility of containing Iran. His statement is thus reasonable, but not compelling in proving that Romney would do a better job.