international analysis and commentary

Romney’s stealing of the Bush playbook on foreign policy


Well, the Republican show is at last mercifully over. It was not easy, but unloved Mitt Romney has at last prevailed over a field of others who could ably staff some traveling carnival. For Barack Obama the whole unedifying spectacle was a gift from heaven. Before the Republicans made their nominating process into some sort of reality TV show, the President significantly trailed a generic Republican challenger among independent voters, the pivotal group needed to win any general election. The White House now finds itself up by nine points among independents in the key swing states that will decide the presidency in 2012. Likewise, some of the mud from the GOP nominating process seems to have stuck to Romney; he enters the general election campaign with the lowest favorable rating of any major candidate since hapless Walter Mondale in 1984.

And yet according to the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Romney finds himself only down 3.2% to the President at this stage of the race. Given all that has gone on before, that is a staggeringly good result for Romney, and a shockingly bad one for Obama. It is easy (too easy) to laugh at Republican blunders up to now. The plain truth of it is Romney has a real chance to capture the presidency, and must be taken seriously.

Given these dangerous times – as the world shifts from American hegemony to a place where there are many powers – nothing is more serious than gauging how the potential president might conduct American foreign policy. Polling indicates that this is a strength of the Obama White House, with a significant majority favoring Obama over Romney regarding the conduct of America’s foreign relations.

The President has run international relations as a sort of bad bank, unwinding the disastrous positions of the George W. Bush presidency. Ending Iraq (while largely ignoring what has come after), promising to quickly do the same in Afghanistan (while again blocking out what we leave behind), and killing Osama bin Laden have all proven broadly popular with the American public.

Let us be clear, Obama is no Truman. He has not devised a new overarching strategy for America’s role in the multipolar world, let alone enacted policies to make this vision a reality. But in his cautious, tactical, sensible way, he has not made things demonstrably worse. After the roller-coaster ride of the Bush years, this has been a blessing for the American people, if a limited one.

That is what makes Romney’s alternative foreign policy so frightening. Like a late-night drive-in movie, the last thing the country wants to watch is “Son of Bush”, yet that is what the GOP nominee seems determined to provide. Here are three snapshots of how Romney is stealing from the Bush foreign policy playbook, which is a lot like borrowing ideas from a World War I general.

1) Be sure not to talk to your enemies (Iran): Ignoring the basic thrust of American foreign policy history, Romney has reserved special scorn for Obama over his Iran policy, mocking his supposedly naïve efforts to engage the mullahs early in his term, as well as his present struggles to bring them to the negotiating table over their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Here Romney and his foreign policy team are the ones being children. FDR allied himself with the sociopath Stalin to win World War II, and was absolutely right to do so. Likewise, Republican Richard Nixon engaged Mao (arguably the man responsible for more deaths than anyone else in human history) and at a stroke brilliantly upended Cold War dynamics. In the hard-eyed pursuit of serving American interests, it is often necessary to talk to people who don’t share American values; occasionally one must talk to and get on with moral lepers. But it is often more important to reach agreements with people and states one does not agree with than to do so with the like-minded. This is not coddling dictators, it is instead behaving like a grown up.

By painstakingly assembling an international coalition over the Iran issue, Obama will come out ahead whatever happens. If the Iranians agree to a deal (unlikely, but possible), then hallelujah, the President has finally earned that peace prize he was given a few years back.If not, then he can at least theatrically shrug his shoulders, softly make it clear he has gone the extra mile for peace, and then work with a far more united world than would have been the case if he had not gone through this exercise, to contain the recalcitrant Iranians. Here engaging one’s enemies has been a useful tactic, whatever comes. Failing to do  so makes a disastrous bombing of Tehran (with all the geostrategic calamities that implies) a certainty.

2) Pick unnecessary fights with other great powers (China): While it is certainly true that China has not entirely played by the rules in enacting its mercantilist foreign policy, Romney’s shrill promise to brand the rising power a currency manipulator on Day 1 of his presidency surely ignores larger strategic realities.

For in the American political discourse, “China” does not signify a specific place. Rather it is shorthand for the economic and political rise of the rest, for China, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and India. This is a world entirely alien to the American mindset and not to America’s emotional liking, particularly at a time when the West is declining in relative terms. Romney’s short-sighted if emotionally satisfying response is to pick a fight with Beijing, even as it shows itself somewhat amenable to begin the laborious and necessary process of loosening trading limits for the yuan.

Picking a needless fight with your banker is never a good idea. Beijing has been invaluable in financing American debt, buying Treasury bonds over the past several years at a heroic (if slightly foolish) rate. This is not to say we should do China’s bidding. Rather, managing the rise of the second-most important country in the world over the next decade will undoubtedly be the central yardstick by which overall American foreign policy is measured.

As such, Washington must set clear lines and keep to them. Maintaining freedom of the seas (including the South China Sea) and hedging against Beijing by cultivating closer ties with Vietnam, Japan, Australia, and above all India, are absolutely necessary counter-measures to take. However, needlessly picking fights with powers essential to cultivate if global governance is to have a chance in the multipolar world is the height of lunacy.

3) Over defense issues, ignore economic reality: Despite the fact that the US still easily outspends the rest of the world in defense terms, the Romney team thinks that Obama is not doing enough to safeguard American security (though what is imperiling America is left noticeably vague). Concretely, Romney promises to spend 4% of American GDP on defense year on year, which amounts to an eye-watering extra $2.5 trillion in government spending over the next decade. 

Candidate Romney has further boxed himself in by promising to bring down the federal government’s share of GDP from its current 23.5% to 20% by the end of his first term in 2016, all without raising taxes. This Houdini-like trick is absolutely impossible without gutting domestic spending to levels even the Tea Party would shudder at.

This is awful politics and worse policy. Gallup’s April 2012 poll shows that 41% of Americans think too much is already spent on the military, with only 24% believing more spending is necessary. Given that cuts of this size simply will not happen, ever-larger deficits (on top of Obama’s own reckless spending spree) will be the inevitable result. Economic ruin will be the consequence of such recklessness.