GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney made his most significant public appearance since last week’s presidential debate. You can read the whole thing here.It was for the most part a frank and brave speech, but it defended some unpopular points of view even as it sharpened the contrast between the two men vying to lead the country for the next four years.
At a time when many Americans are tired and frustrated by the world, Governor Romney is calling on the United States to lead and engage.
It was a smooth speech as these things go; no obvious gaffe lines, no outrageous hyperbole, and overall a clear focus.
Some key points of difference with the current administration emerged in ways that presumably hint at the approach Romney will take: Romney was more explicit than the President that his decisions about US troop deployments in 2014 will take the recommendations of the generals and not just the calendar into account; he called for aid conditionality with Egypt, more aid to Syrian rebels, a tougher line with Russia on missile defence, warmer relations with Israel, tightened sanctions against Iran, bigger defence budgets.
One interesting and troubling point: the subject of Asia didn’t come up. This is no doubt partly due to the political moment; the Middle East is hot in American political debate right now and Asia isn’t. But Asia is on the boil, with tensions over territorial disputes on the rise and China-Japan relations testier than they have been in many years. The Governor warned that speaking of a “pivot” came across to allies in Europe as “pivoting away” from them and he pledged to rebuild US naval strength in the Middle East — without saying anything about the implications of those moves for Asia.
An extra paragraph about Asia wouldn’t have taken long to deliver, but it would have been very welcome in a region where people watch American politics very closely.
The sharpest line of attack in the speech, and the one that may have the most impact going forward, is his attack on the President’s presentation of the results of his Middle Eastern policy. Governor Romney charges that in essence the President has been trying to soothe us with vacuous, comforting lies about the realities in the Middle East: the terrorists have been defeated, democracy is on the march, the era of war in the region is coming to an end.
In reality, says Romney, the hatred, terrorism and violence is worse than it was four years ago, and we are going to face tougher times and tougher choices than the White House is letting on.
I fear he is right about much of that, but the speech then goes on display some optimism of its own. The region, apparently, is teeming with people who want to be our friends:
The greater tragedy of it all is that we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East — friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.
This makes more sense as a criticism of current policy than as a prophecy about a future era of good feelings between the United States and the peoples of the region, especially as strengthening the alliance with Israel would be a major element of the Middle East policy of a Romney administration. Believing that the United States could manage its portfolio in the Middle East in such a way as to win over the masses was one of the core errors the current administration made. Perhaps this was just boilerplate; political speeches often contain long passages that are put there to sound nice rather than to convey any serious meaning or thought.
Nevertheless it points toward an important and unresolved issue in American politics. Since World War Two, the United States has self-consciously accepted the burdens and exercised the privileges of a unique global role. Our involvement in the Middle East is a part of that role, as is our promotion of free trade at home and abroad, our NATO alliance and our activism in Asia.
Not all Americans think this is such a good idea, and the end of the Cold War meant that what many people saw as the chief rationale for that role (the need to fight communism) had disappeared. 9/11 reminded Americans of the importance of world affairs, but the unsatisfying consequences of American policies and military actions since then contribute to another and perhaps more powerful wave of world-weariness.
President Obama and Governor Romney in their different ways are both part of the Globalist Establishment; though they often disagree about policies, priorities and methods, they both believe that the best interests of the American people are served by policies of engagement. President “No Drama” Obama has tried to build support for continuing American leadership basically by saying that the job is getting easier. We are pulling out of the wars in the Middle East, leaving things reasonably quiet. Asia is the future, but it won’t be a hugely difficult or expensive future. We are going to be able to cut defence programs and transfer those resources to domestic programs even as the world continues to look more like the kind of place we want it to become. Yes, we should lead, and no, it won’t hurt.
Romney thinks the job of global leadership is harder to accomplish than Obama is letting on or perhaps understands, but the job is so vital that we have to do it anyway. The Middle East is full of people who are going to do their best to kill us and our friends, and it doesn’t help us to ignore that. Furthermore, if we don’t look engaged, with a big military, an active foreign policy and forceful presentation of our interests and our ideas, others will start to make decisions that we don’t like. You lead by leading, not by acting cool and trying to stand above the fray.
If Romney is right about this, it means that the United States is going to have to commit to a deeper global engagement even though that engagement won’t be cost-free and won’t make us beloved. The GOP nominee must summon the American people to another exhausting rendezvous with destiny even though most of us are still so tired and frustrated from the last one that we just want to sit on the couch and watch TV.
This will be hard; as I’ve written before, spinach may be better for you than ice-cream, but very few people rush out to the curb when the spinach truck trundles through the neighbourhood on a summer evening, tinkling its merry chimes. Governor Romney is driving the spinach truck in foreign policy; we’ll see how that works for him.
Obama is the ice cream man on the Middle East. He was elected in part because people wanted the whole Middle East drama to fade away. People may stick with him in part because they aren’t convinced that a bigger American presence in the region would make things any better. “I’m going to do less and make you happier,” is the message a lot of Americans want to hear.
The President is being a little disingenuous; as far as I can see his Iran policy involves a considerable and rising risk of war. His Libya policy has already given us a new weak client state in the region; the evolution of his Syria policy is leading in the same direction. America is likely to be more deeply engaged in a troubled Middle East no matter which man wins in November.
Governor Romney’s real job is to make Americans like spinach, or at least to remember how good it is for them. At a time when the country is tired of ‘engagement’ and ‘leadership’ he wants to renew the public’s faith in and commitment to America’s global project. The peroration of his speech addresses these doubts and makes the case.
I know many Americans are asking a different question: “Why us?” I know many Americans are asking whether our country today — with our ailing economy, and our massive debt, and after 11 years at war — is still capable of leading.
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. America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years. I am running for President because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America’s great influence — wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively — to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better — not perfect, but better.
Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership. They want more — more of our moral support, more of our security cooperation, more of our trade, and more of our assistance in building free societies and thriving economies. So many people across the world still look to America as the best hope of humankind. So many people still have faith in America. We must show them that we still have faith in ourselves — that we have the will and the wisdom to revive our stagnant economy, to roll back our unsustainable debt, to reform our government, to reverse the catastrophic cuts now threatening our national defence, to renew the sources of our great power, and to lead the course of human events…
The 21st century can and must be an American century. It began with terror, war, and economic calamity. It is our duty to steer it onto the path of freedom, peace, and prosperity.
That is the message: Popeye must eat some more spinach, and save the world once more.
We shall see how it sells.
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