Yawn: Romney Goes Abroad

by , July 24, 2012

If you didn’t know that Mitt Romney is taking his campaign overseas this week to share his Mittastic worldview with the great people of England, Poland, Germany and Israel, don’t worry, not many do. Or care.

Announced early this month, Gov. Romney’s upcoming deployment to these places will serve, presumably, to help boost his foreign policy credentials, which at this point are pretty non-existent. His advisers said in a recent press briefing that he will be “learning and listening” and “forging” ties. It isn’t clear, however, how chumming with the Brits right before the Olympics will do anything more than recall his “saving” the 2002 games in Salt Lake City or make a few Republican expats feel good. Apparently that’s the point. Poland and Germany are safe bets and decent photo ops, too. But in reality, only Israel offers the chance to hear Romney vocalize his positions on a critical international flashpoint — the War in the Middle East.

Of course, we are not likely to hear anything different than we already know: Romney believes “the current administration has distanced itself from Israel and visibly warmed to the Palestinian cause. It has emboldened the Palestinians,” as he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in March.

Furthermore, “in a Romney administration, there will be no gap between our nations or between our leaders.” On Iran, Romney stands four-square with his old friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he wants him to know that Israel’s fight is America’s too: “They (Iranians) war against America…. The only thing respected by thugs and tyrants is our resolve, backed by our power and our readiness to use it.”

His trip there will be more of a reunion and a fundraising draw than a showcase for any thoughtful exegesis on the thorniest international crisis of our time. And forget Africa, Iraq or Afghanistan — all of which host thousands of American soldiers and personnel — as of last week they were absent from the itinerary. Which is interesting, for someone so garrulous about giving the Pentagon everything it wants and more. Yet Romney increasingly appears as uncomfortable (or intimidated?) with the military rank-and-file as President Obama does.

But that is exactly what one might expect from a candidate with no discernible ideology of his own when it comes to global affairs but who has outfitted his policy shop with over a dozen neoconservatives from the lamentable Bush-Cheney era to tell him how to think. These hawks have been amazing at hitting all the right patriotic notes to keep the war machine humming for their own means, but their love for “the troops” has been nothing more than an elaborate conceit.

Romney’s only major foreign policy speech to date was last October, and Steve Clemons, editor-at-large of The Atlantic, called it “one of the most inchoate, disorganized, cliché-filled foreign policy speeches that any serious candidate has ever given.” Nothing the presumptive Republican nominee has said since has defined his foreign policy views any differently. All anyone knows now — aside from his great fealty to Israel — is that he believes Russia is our “Number 1 geopolitical foe,” and that the president does what his military commanders tell him to do.

Sadly, no one is demanding more — especially the voters, who will ultimately decide Romney’s fate as a winner or two-time loser this fall. It doesn’t matter that his advisers have been moping about with nothing to do, or that fellow Republicans are beginning wonder why Romney is so ineffective at homing his message or differentiating his foreign policy positions from the president’s (clue: there’s hardly a blink of daylight between them).

The emerging truth this summer is that the American public does not care. This bodes well for Romney, who is turning out to be a disappointing cypher on foreign policy. It’s not a bad break for the Obama campaign either: current polls already have him running ahead of Romney on international issues and security — no need hash it all out now (though, according to a new CBS/New York Times poll found Obama’s approval rating on foreign policy at 41%, disapproval at 41%).

But it’s not so good for the rest of us, especially those who see the current “grand strategy” as a pathetic hodgepodge of defensive crouches, neo-imperialistic forays and disasters about the happen. There is a widening drone state, an expanding lily pad empire, and near war in Syria and Iran, and no one seems to be talking about any of it, at all.

“There is not a shred of intellectual serious intellectual debate in the U.S. media by the One Party system on the multiple problems spanning the whole ‘arc’ from North Africa to Middle East to East Asia,” writer Pepe Escobar shared with Antiwar.com. “It’s as if this was not a global empire — just a happy little island in the middle of the Pacific.”

According to a CBS News/New York Times poll released mid-May, foreign policy ranked 5th among the issues important to voters (4%), behind same-sex marriage (7%), health care (9%), the federal budget deficit (11%) and the economy and jobs, at number one with 62%. International and military affairs and national security/terrorism register even more dismally in this June Gallup Poll.

“By skimming every poll in sight the One Party system concluded the American electorate is not interested in foreign policy; the economy will decide the election,” said Escobar.

Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes can’t believe it. She is more inclined to blame the politicians themselves, who have just left the war off the platform, period. She writes:

After 11 years, 2,000 American lives, trillions of dollars, and lifelong disabilities for nearly half of the soldiers who have fought there — we are still at war in Afghanistan. Yet if you listen to the election campaign, you would hardly know it.

The war has become an inconvenience that nobody wants to mention. …

Some argue that the war is eclipsed by our economic problems at home. But as Joe Stiglitz and I showed in our book The Three Trillion Dollar War, these issues are closely related. The money we spend in Afghanistan is not helping the U.S. economy. The same amount, whether spent on middle class tax cuts or aid to state and local governments, could put people back to work at home. …

In short, the election provides an opportunity for Americans to take a clear-eyed view of our policy in Afghanistan. The war is costing too much for us to simply push it under the carpet.

Many of us feel the same way, professor, but sadly, it all makes sense. Transcendent to Mitt Romney’s apparent weaknesses is the reality that the two have hardly anything to really argue about. Sure, one can be more hawkish than then the other on Israel and Iran, but since Obama’s foreign policy has run the same tracks as the previous, neoconservative one, there is not much to gain for either party to start raising the question of Afghanistan or anything else, now. At least this was the general consensus when we recently polled a few friends and contributors to Antiwar.com.

“The problem is that both Republicans and Democrats support the foreign policy (which is really security policy) status quo, so there can be no meaningful debate,” offered writer and ex-CIA officer Phil Giraldi.

“President Obama has demonstrated his willingness to use force indiscriminately, therefore shoring up his flank against the usual “weakness” charge leveled against Democrats,” and Romney generally agrees, albeit with more chest-beating bloviation, Giraldi said. “But generally the foreign policy is bipartisan.”

Thus veteran reporter Gareth Porter archly added, “only if Romney were to actually call for a U.S. attack on Iran would there be an possibility of significant difference of view.”

“Any discussion of foreign policy by the candidates would risk ‘riling up the natives,’” posed Jim Bovard of the Future of Freedom Foundation. “Avoiding controversies keeps the issues dormant and will make it much easier to start more conflicts as faits accomplis — without bothersome public debates or any real criticism.”

But isn’t it the responsibility of the voters to make the connection between what happens overseas and how those policies affect us here at home, particularly at the wallet, and our overall security as a nation? Iraq War veteran and West Point professor Col. Gian Gentile points out that while the public has been great at “supporting the troops” it’s forgotten its critical thinking skills and moral obligations. Therefore people don’t see that being well-informed and inquisitive about the war and its implications could be the most patriotic gesture they ever make.

I agree that there is no interest at all on the campaign trail with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, or even with the droning on of the drone campaign. I think also in a larger sense the American people have never really cared much about the war in Afghanistan anyway. … I find myself in this regard in rather strange situation. I often hear Vietnam vets talking about how lucky we are today because the American people are so appreciative of our service, and how respectful they are to us. Much different of course than the Vietnam years where returning veterans were not treated well, and often times harshly by the American public. But in a twisted sort of way I almost long for that kind of American public in a war because at least they were morally engaged and cared deeply about the war. …

I was traveling back from D.C. a couple of weeks ago in my ACUs (Army Combat Uniform) and stopped at a roadside rest stop for a bite to eat. I probably had two to three people come up to me and say thanks for my service. But it got me to thinking how good do we really have it now if those very people are thankful yes, but not really engaged in a moral way with these wars.

We can blame the media, and as Escobar says, the One Party system. But we need to look in the mirror too. As Giraldi points out, the candidates may never talk about foreign policy on the campaign, but it’s 50% of what they do when they get into office.

We can start by holding Romney’s feet to the fire about what he really stands for, beyond the silly Citadel speech, the war-whoops and the bonding with Netanyahu. There is no better time than now.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos.

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