Mitt Romney’s much-briefed foreign policy speech yesterday was a brilliant piece of sleight of hand. As with his debate performance on domestic policy last week, its main purpose was to position him against the whackier fringes of his party as a classically guided centre-Right Republican – internationalist, pro-free trade, and pragmatic – rather than to take on President Obama’s policies. To see this, you only really have to look at one phrase: “I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf.” Who are America’s partners in the Gulf? Well, the ones he means are Saudi Arabia, provider of American oil, Qatar, home to Centcom, and Bahrain, home to the Fifth Fleet.See why he wasn’t a bit more specific? “I will deepen our critical co-operation with Wahhabi Islamist autocracy Saudi Arabia, Qatar, which is now home to Hamas and the only Gulf state to have positive relations with Iran, and Bahrain, which sent in the army to stop the Arab Spring spreading there.” Hmm, that formulation wouldn’t have quite the same ring of neo-con, democracy-promoting idealism about America “supporting friends who shared our values” that he mentioned elsewhere in his speech. Many of Mr Romney’s backers don’t have much time for such countries, with their longstanding connections to political Islam. But these countries are the post-war lynchpins of American policy in the Middle East, and Republicans have traditionally accepted that without doing overmuch to see whether they really are craving, as Mr Romney suggests, “more of our moral support, more of our assistance in building free societies”. That’s going to continue under a President Romney, make no mistake, no less than it did under the supposedly “pro-Muslim” President Obama. Mr Obama’s first Middle East visit was to Riyadh, and I reckon Mr Romney’s would be too.
The Right (like the Left, it has to be said) has been deeply split about the whole Arab Spring. The far more important and heavily flagged aspect of the speech concerned a throwaway line on Syria, which was promoted widely as him saying he would, unlike Mr Obama, arm the rebels. He said no such thing. He said: “I will work with our partners to identify and organise 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.” That could mean – and if it doesn’t, why did he not say so? – that he supports the current policy of supporting, encouraging, and guiding Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey as they arm the rebels. One advance he may be making is exactly the one that severely alarms, again, the anti-Islamist lobby: he hints that he will allow the provision of anti-aircraft missiles and other heavier armaments, which the administration currently prevents because it fears they will fall into the revolution’s many Islamist hands, and that the “mistakes” of the Afghan campaign in the Eighties will be repeated.
And so on. Mr Romney attacks Mr Obama’s exit from Afghanistan, but doesn’t promise to keep troops on the ground any longer. He will “weigh” the advice of commanders on the ground – would any president admit to dismissing it out of hand? – but does not promise to follow it if they say that the troops must stay. Likewise, he rails against Iran’s growing involvement in Iraq without promising to do anything about it, and against Iran’s nuclear programme without threatening anything specific other than more of the same Obama sanctions. Mr Romney is thus promising to maintain the broad consensus of American foreign policy over the years in the face of calls for radical change. If he intends to go all George W Bush, he gives no indication of it.
And on one key question he has backslid even further into conventional Republican territory. Disappeared from the speech like a pro-Dalai Lama demonstrator in Beijing was any significant mention of China other than in the one context where Mr Obama’s position has been unimpeachably hawkish – supporting Asian democracies against China’s feared expansionism. There was no mention of Mr Romney’s threat to have China declared a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office: that drew a sharp rebuke from Henry Kissinger, the Republican who did more than anyone else to create modern America-China relations and whom few Republicans dare to ignore. Nope, forget the China-bashing hawks: free trade with China will continue under Mr Romney as it has done under his successors, whatever the complaints about American jobs being lost.
The odd thing is that Mr Romney had one huge weapon with which to beat Mr Obama. He referred to it briefly: the death of Chris Stevens, US ambassador to Libya. It is now clear that Mr Stevens and his team repeatedly begged for more security, but actually had it reduced by the State Department. This was after militant groups attempted to assassinate the British ambassador. Let’s say that again: the State Department withdrew security from a US ambassador who feared attack by militants, and he was then killed by militants. The administration then basically misled the public for a week over what happened, to cover up its mistake, saying that a protest had got out of hand (a protest which no witness claimed to have seen) rather than admitting that the militants Mr Stevens feared would attack him had indeed done so.
In Britain, someone’s head would surely have rolled by now. And Mr Romney’s position? “Americans are asking how this happened, how the threats we face have grown so much worse, and what this calls on America to do,” he said, and then daringly replied: “These are the right questions. And I have come here today to offer a larger perspective.”
All one can assume is that Mr Romney is keeping to what appears to be another long-standing foreign policy tradition: that no-one should really be held responsible for cock-ups abroad.
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