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

In a lecture published Monday, Robert Zoellick, a former Bush Administration official and a current senior Romney campaign figure, had this to say on U.S. foreign policy:

Journalists and commentators expound about wars and rumors of wars, political leaders and upheavals, human rights and duties to intervene, missiles and their defense. All serious and important topics. But how about a question on the eurozone crisis that threatens the integration of Europe, one of the 20th century’s greatest security-policy achievements and America’s closest ally and partner? What about America’s connections to growth in East Asia, where economics is the coin of the realm? The reply is that these topics concern economics, not foreign policy!”

Perhaps Romney didn’t get the memo from the man he has tapped to lead his national security transition team, because the candidate’s Virginia Military Institute speech was devoted almost entirely to wars, upheavals and missiles, without a word on the eurozone crisis or on East Asian economic growth. Instead, he focused on the Middle East, delivering a broad critique of the incumbent. Despite similarities on many or most of the key policy issues, it would be a mistake to dismiss Mitt Romney‘s foreign policy as the status quo repackaged in Reaganesque rhetoric. There are substantial differences between the president and his challenger, even if they’re neither as stark, nor as numerous, as the Romney camp would have voters believe.

(MORE: Romney on Foreign Policy: Style and Simplicity)

Allies and adversaries in world capitals reviewing Romney’s speech would have sensed a sharp change in the tone of U.S. foreign policy, replacing Obama’s cautious, sometimes halting and largely improvisational retreat from the unsustainable military commitments of the George W. Bush-era, with a new narrative stressing confidence, clarity of purpose, and resolve. “It is 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,” Romney told the VMI cadets. “Unfortunately, that is exactly where we find ourselves in the Middle East under President Obama.”

But declarations of intent and determination aside, Romney offered only a handful of specific policy changes. Curiously enough, he avoided mentioning his stump-speech standard threat to declare China a currency manipulator in order to restore U.S. manufacturing competitiveness. His only mention of the Middle Kingdom, in fact,  was a passing reference to its “recent assertiveness sending chills” throughout Asia. Instead, he made his stand against Obama in the Middle East, which he said was in the throes of an epic struggle between liberty and tyranny that demanded U.S. leadership . Vowing a change of course, he nonetheless avoided specific policy changes to shape the increasingly complex historical forces unleashed by the Arab spring.

(MORE: Romney’s Not-So-”Major” Foreign Policy Address Casts Obama as Weak)

While highlighting the threat posed by the extreme salafists that stormed U.S. embassies, he gave no indication of how he would relate to their primary rivals, the mainstream Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood movement elected in Egypt and Tunisia. And while he blamed President Obama’s “abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence” for the increasingly grim situation in Iraq, he neglected to mention that said withdrawal occurred on the basis of an agreement negotiated in 2008 by the Bush Administration, and that it was the choice of a democratically elected Iraqi government to decline an agreement to extend their mission.

The alternative policy route, if there is one, certainly wasn’t spelled out. Indeed, much of the speech laid out U.S. goals in tough terms, without offering much by way of specifics. On Afghanistan, Romney seemed to hedge his bets, on the one hand vowing to “pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” the Obama goal he has previously supported, while bashing Obama for committing to “a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to … extremists”. He even castigated Obama for suggesting that staying beyond 2014 was to commit to open-ended war, vowing to make his decisions based on “conditions on the ground” and “the best advice of our military commanders.” Generals’ advice will depend on the goal they’re set, and conditions on the ground are such that the Taliban threat won’t be eliminated or contained by 2014.

MORE: Out on the Trail, Romney Broadens Foreign Policy Critique of Obama

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