By Michael Walker
In an election season consumed by the sluggish U.S. economy, foreign policy has been a more marginal issue than usual in the U.S. presidential race. But when they have ventured to attack President Barack Obama’s record on global affairs, GOP nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan have avoided substantive issues in favor of tired talking points and dog whistles, chalking up a series of gaffes and exposing their own inexperience in the process.
First, as in so many other cases, the Romney-Ryan ticket has repeatedly misrepresented the truth about the administration’s foreign policy, laying a number of ludicrous charges at Obama’s door—like the accusations that he has betrayed allies like Israel, “appeased” Cuba, and “apologized for America” more generally. Second, Romney has displayed a rare talent for committing diplomatic faux pas, even managing to offend such steadfast U.S. allies as the United Kingdom. Third, the Republican candidates have sent out disingenuously contradictory messages on bipartisanship, assailing their colleagues for cooperating with the president while at the same time appealing for a bipartisan approach to foreign affairs.
Attacking the Imaginary
There are of course creditable reasons for criticizing President Obama’s foreign policy. For example, the administration’s heavy reliance on armed drones as an instrument of policy in the Middle East and Central Asia is a highly dangerous and lamentable development for which the administration has repeatedly refused to account. The Republicans, however, have chosen to focus on the imaginary as opposed to the real, presumably in the belief that attacking President Obama on issues like Cuba and Israel will play well with key constituencies.
One of the more controversial episodes in this canon concerned the violent demonstrations targeting U.S. diplomatic missions in the Middle East—one of which led to the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, in what appears to have been a terrorist attack. The very night the news broke, Romney accused the Obama administration—on the flimsiest of evidence—of sympathizing “with those who waged the attacks.” This particular criticism is part of a broader, deeply nebulous line of attack which holds that the president has somehow “apologized” for America and its values.
The campaign has used similar tactics on other issues. An especially weird charge hurled at the administration was Paul Ryan’s claim, made before a partisan crowd in Florida, that the president has pursued a “policy of appeasement” toward Cuba. That this is nonsense should be apparent to anyone with the slightest familiarity with the current administration’s policy towards the Caribbean island. Consider the fact that this year’s Summit of the Americas in Colombia finished without a joint statement because the U.S. president, along with Canada’s Stephen Harper, objected to the mere inclusion of language calling for Cuba to be invited to the next summit. Furthermore, the Obama administration has refused to lift the 50-year-old trade embargo against Cuba and has continued the Bush administration’s controversial “democracy promotion” programs aimed at undermining the Castro regime. The basis for the “appeasement” claim appears to be that the president “has relaxed sanctions,” according to Romney. It is true that the administration lifted restrictions on family travel and the sending of remittances by Cuban-Americans in 2009, and has eased such restrictions on other Americans. Yet to characterize these minor measures as “appeasement” is to take a giant leap into unreality—one that is all the more disingenuous given Ryan’s own longstanding and very recent support for ending the U.S. embargo on Cuba.
Romney has also castigated the president for “throw[ing] allies like Israel under the bus.” But the notion that the Obama administration has been insufficiently supportive of Israel ought to provoke laughter. The United States has given $3 billion in direct annual aid to Israel during Obama’s presidency, and the administration released an additional $70 million in July. Furthermore, the administration has provided invaluable diplomatic support to Israel at the United Nations, often in defiance of world opinion and even stated U.S. policy. A case in point occurred in February 2011, when U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice vetoed a Security Council resolution that sought to condemn Israel’s settlement building in the Palestinian Territories as “illegal.” The other 14 members of the Security Council, including even the UK, all voted in favor.
As one would expect, the administration’s policy on the key foreign policy issue of Iran, and above all its alleged nuclear dabbling, has been the subject of repeated attacks by Romney and Ryan. Many of these criticisms have been completely unsubstantiated, an example being Romney’s contention, made in his speech to the GOP convention, that the president has “failed to slow Iran’s nuclear threat.” In addition, both Romney and Ryan have emphasized the vague notion that the president lacks “credibility” with the regime in Tehran, with Ryan telling Fox News that “The Ayatollahs, by virtue of the [administration’s] conduct, don’t believe the president when he says his interest is to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.” Quite how Ryan has such an insight into the minds of Iran’s leaders is anyone’s guess.
This fixation with “credibility” most likely results from the fact that the Republicans’ own position on Iran’s nuclear program is uncannily similar to that of the administration. Romney acknowledged as much in an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in September, when he stated that “my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon.” When Stephanopoulos rightly pointed out that the president had “said exactly the same thing,” Romney made no attempt to deny it.
It also seems that the former Massachusetts governor has an unusual gift for diplomatic gaffes. When he visited London back in July, he pulled off something once thought to be impossible: he managed to cause offense in the United Kingdom.
There is a basic routine to visits by senior U.S. political figures to the UK: smile, invoke the “Special Relationship,” and you’ll have the British media and politicians eating out of your hand. In a blunder of impressive proportions, however, Romney appeared to question whether London could hold a successful Olympic games in an interview just days before the Olympic opening ceremony. Romney’s comments came on the very day he was to attend a reception in his honor at 10 Downing Street, the home of the prime minister. In addition, Romney seemed to forget—or was ignorant of—the name of the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, Ed Miliband, referring to him with the unusual title of “Mr. Leader” during a joint press conference. What was particularly surprising about this episode was that Romney has himself spoken of the importance of the U.S.-UK relationship, declaring in a major speech on foreign relations in October 2011 that he “will count as dear our Special Relationship with the United Kingdom.”
Not content with upsetting the British, Romney headed to Israel, where he succeeded in outraging Palestinian leaders in a speech delivered at a fundraiser in Jerusalem. The GOP nominee reportedly remarked that “you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality” between Israel and “the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority,” but apparently failed to mention that this disparity might have something to do with Israel’s occupation and control of the West Bank’s borders. Instead, Romney lauded “the accomplishments of the people of this nation” and the power of “culture and a few other things.” Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official, deemed Romney’s comments “racist.” It is, however, unlikely that Romney lost too much sleep as a result of this furor, for, as we shall see, he seems to have a distinctly negative view of Palestinians generally.
Writing in Foreign Policy in September, James Traub accurately observed that “the hallmark of Romney’s foreign policy critique has been self-contradiction.” An instructive example of this is Romney’s stance on bipartisanship. Those who witnessed Romney’s speech to the Republican National Convention in Tampa will have heard an ode to the “bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan.” Yet Romney himself has taken fellow Republicans to task for daring to represent the United States abroad during the Obama presidency. One such target was Jon Huntsman, who committed the sin of agreeing to take on the pivotal role of U.S. ambassador to China while Barack Obama was in the White House. Huntsman was, until early this year, one of Romney’s rivals in the race for the Republican nomination.
An impartial observer might think that Huntsman is the sort of individual Romney and Ryan should listen to: knowledgeable, respected, and experienced in foreign affairs. However, in a televised Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire in January, Romney responded to Huntsman’s well-informed remarks on China by deriding the former ambassador for not playing for the right team. “I’m sorry, governor, you were for the last two years implementing the policies of this administration in China,” remarked Romney. “The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”
There is also a glaring contradiction regarding the Romney ticket’s defense spending plans. In this respect, the Republican nominees truly are the heirs of Ronald Reagan, a comparison which would no doubt please them enormously. Reagan espoused a set of economic principles, memorably ridiculed as “voodoo economics” by George H. W. Bush (before he joined the Reagan presidential ticket), which have been embraced by Romney and Ryan alike. Put simply, this equates to saying that you’re going to cut government spending while at the same time pouring money into the Pentagon. The Romney-Ryan plan is to arbitrarily raise defense spending to at least 4 percent of GDP, modernize the air force, build more ships on a yearly basis, improve services for veterans, and increase the size of the military by 100,000 troops—while still magically cutting federal expenditures (and taxes!).
It appears as well that there has been a communication breakdown in the Romney camp regarding the candidates’ position on the moribund Middle East peace process. Interviewed on Fox News recently, Paul Ryan claimed that the U.S. president was to blame for the failure of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. “We’re seeing the ugly fruits of the Obama foreign policy unravel around the world,” declared Ryan, who reeled off several examples to make his case: Iran’s continued nuclear ambitions, the chaos in Syria, and the “shambles” that remain of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
But Romney’s musings on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are notably different. Speaking to a small group of donors in footage released by Mother Jones, Romney noted that there were some “thorny issues” standing in the way of peace and that, basically, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about it. Indeed, far from pointing the finger at President Obama, Romney depicted the dispute as a hopeless case. “You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem,” lamented Romney, so “we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it.” Moreover, it was crystal clear from Romney’s observations that he views the Palestinians as the problem, as they allegedly “have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.”
The overall impression created by these episodes is that Romney and Ryan are most unsure of themselves when it comes to foreign affairs. This uncertainty is not surprising, for few presidential or vice-presidential candidates can claim to possess expertise and experience in this area. (The likes of Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush are the exception rather than the rule.) Nonetheless, the misrepresentations of the current president’s policies, the attacks on Republicans who had the courage to work with a Democratic administration, and the contradictory positions on defense spending and bipartisanship suggest that, even allowing for inexperience, these men are scarcely prepared to take charge of U.S. relations with the rest of the world.
Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Michael Walker has a PhD in international relations from the University of St. Andrews.