Romney foreign-policy speech takes tough tone but proposes few changes

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 8, 2012 

— Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney slammed his rival’s international strategy as weak Monday in a speech at Virginia Military Institute.

But many of the remarks in his critique didn’t pass the truth test, and despite his tough tone, the foreign-policy positions he outlined hewed close to those already held by President Barack Obama.

“I believe that if America does not lead, others will – others who do not share our interests and our values – and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us,” Romney said. “America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years.”

The speech lambasted Obama’s response to the Arab Spring, specifically his administration’s handling of the violent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

“I want to be very clear: The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out – no one else,” Romney said. “But it is our responsibility and the responsibility of our president to use America’s great power to shape history – not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events. Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”

In the address before more than 500 Virginia Military Institute cadets and local supporters in Lexington, Va., the former Massachusetts governor made his case to voters that he’d be a more capable commander in chief than Obama.

“I know the president hopes for a safer, freer and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope,” Romney said. “But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity.”

Romney said Obama “missed an historic opportunity” to provide leadership during his term, a time of great upheaval in the Middle East.

As president, Romney said, he’d work with U.S. partners to arm rebels in Syria, make aid to Egypt conditional on the development of democratic institutions – as well as peace with Israel – and advocate an independent Palestinian state coexisting with Israel.

Coming off a strong performance last week in a debate with Obama that centered on domestic policy, Romney is looking to boost his reputation in international relations, the topic of a debate coming Oct. 22. Although voters often don’t base decisions on foreign policy, Romney’s line of attack Monday dovetailed with his campaign’s overarching narrative that Obama is a weak leader.

Romney’s most serious charge in the speech was that the president’s national-security strategy is “not one of partnership but of passivity,” said Karl Inderfurth, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a public-policy research institution.

In reading a copy of the speech, Inderfurth said, he was reminded of the old political catchphrase “Where’s the beef?”

“I think it’s fair to ask Gov. Romney: What’s his beef?” said Inderfurth, who was an assistant secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. “He basically endorses President Obama’s approach on Iran, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and creating a Palestinian state, all the hot-button issues. His rhetoric is critical, but his actual policy prescriptions are quite in line with Obama.”

Qataris and Saudis already are arming the Syrian rebels, for example, and the CIA has people in Turkey trying to determine which groups will receive the weapons. Egyptian aid always has been tied to its peace treaty with Israel, and a two-state Israel-Palestinian solution aligns with long-standing U.S. policy.

But Romney’s assertion that he’d “recommit” the U.S. to “a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel” contrasts with his remarks captured in a video of a private fundraiser in Florida earlier this year.

In the video, Romney said he’d believed for some time that "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.”

On Afghanistan, Romney said in Monday’s speech that he’d heed military commanders’ advice and implement a “real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” That timeline matches Obama’s exit strategy.

Romney pledged to toughen sanctions on Iran and said he’d tighten measures already in force aimed at coercing the country to halt its uranium enrichment program, which the United States and other powers contend is aimed at developing the ability to produce nuclear warheads. Iran says its program is for peaceful purposes.

Obama has won European Union, Chinese and Russian support for four rounds of U.N. sanctions, and the U.S. and EU have imposed their own stricter measures. Taken together, the sanctions are the toughest ever slapped on Iran since its nuclear program came to light in 2002 after 18 years of concealment.

Romney said he’d increase pressure on Iran by restoring a “permanent presence” of U.S. aircraft-carrier task forces in the eastern Mediterranean.

However, there’s almost always a carrier task force in the 5th Fleet region of the Persian Gulf and often there are two, as there are today, according to the U.S. Navy website.

Romney accused Obama of failing “to offer tangible support” to fledgling governments that succeeded the overthrown dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. This is inaccurate. The Obama administration has provided more than $200 million in assistance to Libya since the uprising that toppled the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi began in January 2011, according to a report Aug. 9 by the Congressional Research Service, the nonpartisan research arm of Congress.

Those funds have included $89 million in humanitarian assistance and $40 million for a program in which the U.S. is buying heavy weapons looted from armories during the uprising to prevent them from falling into terrorists’ hands.

The United States has provided more than $300 million to Tunisia since the ouster of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, according to the State Department. The funds have helped the country pay its foreign debt, raise money, and boost employment and private enterprise.

Egypt remains one of the largest recipients of U.S. assistance, receiving $250 million in economic aid and $1.3 billion in military support annually. A House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee chairwoman, Republican Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, announced last month that she was blocking $450 million in assistance to Egypt amid growing disagreements with the government of newly elected President Mohammed Morsi.

Romney suggested that Obama is responsible for “rising violence, a resurgent al Qaida, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad and the rising influence of Iran” in Iraq because of “the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence.”

All U.S. forces were required to be out of Iraq by last Dec. 31 under a timetable that the Republican George W. Bush administration had negotiated with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al Malaki and the Iraqi parliament overwhelmingly approved on Nov. 27, 2008.

Romney also criticized Obama as failing to promote new foreign markets for American goods, and he asserted that the president had signed no new free-trade agreements in four years. “I will reverse that failure,” he said.

Obama signed free-trade pacts with South Korea, Panama and Colombia on Oct. 21, 2011. The accords were the largest package of such agreements signed in 17 years. They’d been negotiated by Bush’s administration and revised by Obama administration officials to include labor rights assurances from Colombia, a tax information exchange with Panama and an overhaul of automobile tariffs with South Korea.

Romney’s foreign policy advisers say Monday’s speech was designed to communicate his commitment to “peace through strength,” a phrase that Republican Ronald Reagan famously used in his successful run against Democratic President Jimmy Carter.

The Romney campaign repeatedly has sought to draw comparisons between Obama and Carter, whose popularity suffered badly during the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Iran in 1979-80, undermining his bid for a second term.

“The American people are going to be asked to make a decision, and in the area of foreign policy and national security, there’s a pretty bold choice,” said one of Romney’s advisers, former Ambassador Rich Williamson.

The Obama campaign didn’t wait for the speech to be delivered before hitting back.

In a news briefing Sunday, Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration refused “to be lectured by someone who has been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he’s dipped his toe in the foreign policy waters.”

After the speech, Psaki said this was Romney’s seventh attempt to reboot his foreign policy.

“When you’re commander in chief you don’t get to bring an Etch A Sketch into the Oval Office,” she said. “ ... This is somebody who leads with chest-pounding rhetoric. He’s inexperienced. He’s been clumsy at his handling of foreign policy.”

Landay reported from Washington. Email: lwise@mcclatchydc.com, jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @lindsaywise, @JonathanLanday

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