Romney Foreign Policy Speech: ‘Time to Change Course in the Middle East’

There are substantial differences between the president and his challenger on foreign policy, even if they're neither as stark, nor as numerous, as the Romney camp would have voters believe.

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in a downpour in Newport News, Virginia Oct. 8, 2012

Romney also presented Iran’s nuclear progress as a result of Tehran being emboldened by Obama’s alleged weakness. But Iran’s current nuclear effort has progressed steadily, and in linear fashion, since early 2006, when President Bush was in office and 140,000 U.S. troops were on its doorstep in Iraq. The Republican candidate warned he would put Iran on notice that the U.S. will prevent it from “acquiring nuclear weapons capability,” vowing to tighten sanctions and increase military assistance to and in coordination with Israel. It’s hard to distinguish that stance from the one taken by the Obama Administration, and while he insists that there should be “no daylight” between the U.S. and Israel on Iran, presumably he’s not planning to outsource U.S. decisions on war to Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, no matter how close their friendship. So, like the Obama White House, a Romney Administration will find itself negotiating the issue with the Israelis.

On Syria, however, Romney signaled a policy difference, vowing to “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.” Such a plan, he said, would deliver  a strategic blow to Assad’s backers in Iran, and would buy Washington influence with Syria’s future rulers who, he said, are being turned against America by Obama’s passivity. Until now, the incumbent has declined to openly encourage the arming of the rebels, and the New York Times reported on Sunday that Washington has discouraged regional allies from funneling heavier weaponry to the insurgents, lest they end up in the hands of elements hostile to the U.S.  Romney plans to remove such restraints, although he did not commit to the more direct forms U.S. military intervention urged by  rebels, and by allies like Turkey. A calculated escalation in Syria, then.

(MORE: Mitt Romney’s Foreign Policy Gamble)

Russia was the focus of a second policy difference: Romney vowed to aggressively pursue the missile-interceptor deployments in Europe that have antagonized Moscow, which fears that such deployments — packaged as a counter to Iran — would dilute its own nuclear deterrent. “And on this,” warned Romney, “there will be no flexibility with Vladimir Putin.” That was a direct reference to President Obama’s hot-mic message to Putin that once reelected, he’ll be able to show more flexibility on the issue. Romney’s harder line suggests a willingness to tangle with the country he has identified as America’s “number one foe,” which could imperil prospects for securing Russian cooperation on key U.S. goals such as Iran — although the counter-argument may point to Syria as a sign of just how little cooperation Moscow is willing to offer.

The third policy specific was Romney’s vow to build 15 new ships a year for the U.S. Navy — a 50% increase on the current rate of shipbuilding, as one of the more concrete expressions of Romney’s warning against cutting military spending. Such capacity would certainly expand the Navy’s force-projection capability .

But beyond those specifics, one other notable thematic policy difference advocated by Romney was his emphasis on trade — not simply the free-trade orientation shared by every White House since the end of the Cold War, but a “trade agenda” that recognizes U.S. economic power as a policy tool for engaging with the new Middle East and beyond. That element of Romney’s argument is very much line with the orientation urged by Zoellick, who stresses the centrality of U.S. domestic economic dynamism to its prospects of restoring global geopolitical influence. In Zoellick’s view, the overarching strategic priority for the U.S. is to get America’s own economic house in order. Notes Zoellick:

“The world continues to struggle through a global economic crisis that began in the United States. Fears, fragilities, and failures fuel tensions within and among countries. Leaders are under protectionist and nationalist pressures — in trade, but also regarding currencies, investments, resources, and the oceans. These frictions risk a downward economic spiral and even conflict. Because the United States has not faced up to its economic problems at home, its voice on international economics does not carry, its power has waned, and its strategic designs drift with the currents of the day’s news. Without healthy economic growth, the United States will be unable to lead. Just as dangerously, it will lose its identity on the global stage if it loses its economic dynamism. America’s unique strength is the ability to reinvent itself.”

That suggests that the man heading up a Romney transition should he win in November could be guided by a priority familiar to Bill Clinton’s 1992 election team: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

MORE: Old Borders, New Realities in the Middle East

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