Rubin Reports

Previewing Romney's VMI Foreign Policy Speech: Is It Real Change?

(Note: This article was written using excerpts provided by the Romney campaign. The full text when delivered might change some of the analysis.)

Update 1:49 PM Pacific Time: My take on Romney’s Middle East Speech can be found here.

Mitt Romney’s team has released excerpts of a speech he is to give momentarily at the Virginia Military Institute today, which is to focus on U.S. Middle East policy. Without attacking President Barack Obama’s policy with more passion and detail or confronting the revolutionary Islamist threat more directly, can Romney persuade people that he has a different view that matters?

He begins by quoting former Lexington, Virginia, resident 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:

The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts. They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East — a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century.

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.

Continuing his approach of trying to avoid appearing too critical of Obama, Romney continues:

I know the president hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States.

But this hope is not sufficient in a situation where America cuts defense spending and is perceived as passive. Consequently:

It is time to change course in the Middle East.

Yet without dealing with Obama’s biggest failure in the region — supporting the empowerment of American enemies — how can Romney make a persuasive case on this issue? He cannot. The approach that Obama is a well-intentioned nice guy who is just in over his head cannot make the alternative case on the Middle East.

So what would Romney do if he became president? I want to quote him directly before analyzing these points. On Iran:

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 of Romney wanting 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.

His second point is that he would:

… champion free trade and restore it as a critical element of our strategy, both in the Middle East and across the world.

He adds that Obama has not signed any new trade agreements. It is not clear how trade agreements would affect the Middle East situation.

Third:

I will support friends across the Middle East who share our values, but need help defending them and their sovereignty against our common enemies.

But what countries does Romney have in mind? He has also stated the issue in a way that traps himself. Who shares U.S. values but needs help in defending themselves? Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and the smaller Gulf emirates need U.S. help, but could not be said to share American values. So who is he talking about?

Fourth:

In Libya, I will support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them, and I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed Americans.

Again, though, the Obama administration has also worked to help form a government in Libya and promises to catch the terrorists. We once more face the issue of Romney asserting that he will be tougher and do a better job but with no clear differentiation on his policy. Those who understand that he would be more determined are already voting for him. How would this convince anyone else?

Fifth:

In Egypt, I will use our influence — including clear conditions on our aid — to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid.

This is nice rhetoric but again it is identical to Obama policy declarations. The one new point is that U.S. aid would be conditioned on fair treatment of minorities and maintenance of the treaty with Israel.

The most original, but still flawed, statement is on Syria:

In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran — rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.

This speaks of more activism in helping the rebels and — most important — on the moderates among them. He puts the civil war in the context of combatting Iranian influence, but to what extent would this justify backing anyone — Salafists and Muslim Brothers — who might overthrow the regime and “one day lead” Syria?

On Afghanistan, he says that he:

 … will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.

Yet what does this mean? Romney opposed “a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11.”

In other words, Romney would consider keeping U.S. troops there longer. Yet does it make sense for Americans to keep fighting a war on behalf of Afghan allies who often kill U.S. soldiers in pursuit of a stability that is unlikely to come to that country? This could end up being even worse than Obama’s policy.

Finally, Romney says:

 … I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the president has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new President will bring the chance to begin anew.

This position implies that a new president could make dramatic progress in the peace process — which is certainly untrue.

The Romney campaign has constructed a Middle East stance that gives some recognition to the radical Islamist threat but basically lacks creative knowledge, specifics, and the kind of different view that might win support. His basic argument that he would be tougher, more supportive of U.S. allies, and put more pressure on American enemies is true. But he is not saying the things necessary to prove this assertion.

The answer is not to be more reflexively hawkish — as his Afghan stance shows, this can be a mistake — but that he understands the situation better.

Part of the problem is that Romney does not want to name the enemy, its threat, and strategy. Obviously, he doesn’t want to run the risk of being accused of Islamophobia even if he would make a clear distinction between Islam and revolutionary forces. As a result, this position is satisfactory but hardly dynamic, persuasive, or providing a clear alternative to Obama.

Romney will have to do better than this if he is going to use the issue as an effective part of his campaign.