Romney's Foreign Policies Sound a Lot Like Obama's

Michael Hirsh
National Journal

Mitt Romney moderated some of his formerly hawkish rhetoric Monday in what was billed as a major foreign policy speech and sought to reassure Americans that he wants to avoid war. At the same time, however, the GOP nominee persisted in taking a tougher line against Russia and China, and he suggested that he’d like to see U.S. troops back in Iraq.

Invoking one of America’s greatest statesmen, Gen. George C. Marshall, at the former secretary of state’s alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, Romney spoke of Marshall’s  “commitment to peace …  born of his direct knowledge of the awful costs and consequences of war”  and quoted him as saying: “The only way human beings can win a war is to prevent it.” 

Romney's speech continued a broad move to the rhetorical middle that he signaled during his first debate with President Obama last week. Yet in toning down his language—for example, by backing away from earlier suggestions that he was ready to go to war with Iran—Romney revealed that his actual policy differences with Obama are almost undetectable in many areas.

The Republican candidate, in a speech focused almost entirely on the Mideast and Iran, continued his standard attack on the president’s leadership, saying Obama was “at the mercy of events” rather than directing them. Yet even as he declared “it is time to change course in the Middle East,” in almost every case Romney largely reaffirmed courses that Obama has already taken.

Romney said he “will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” That is already Obama’s policy, though some might quibble about the difference between stopping an outright weapon versus stopping the “capability” for one, which is closer to Israel’s rhetoric. Romney declared he “will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” That is Obama’s policy too—one that has recently caused a currency collapse in Iran. Romney also said he will “work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.” Yet the Obama administration has already taken military cooperation with Israel to its highest level in history.

Romney, again moderating his formerly harsh rhetoric on the stump, shifted course on the Palestinians, saying he “will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.” But that has been Obama’s policy too, and only last month Romney said the Palestinians had “no interest” in peace. As Romney well knows, there have been no negotiations because the Israelis refuse to negotiate with Hamas, the violent extremist group that controls politics in Gaza. Since Romney declared in his speech Monday that there can be no “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel, presumably a President Romney would not negotiate either.  

Romney asserted there is “a longing for American leadership in the Middle East,” and he called for more help to the beleaguered Syrian rebels, invoking a Syrian woman whom he quoted as saying: “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” Yet Romney shrank from saying that, as president, he would send arms himself to the Syrian rebels, and he was careful to say that he would “work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values,” which is also what the Obama administration is doing. Oddly, Romney pointed out that, in the aftermath of the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya on Sept. 11, “tens of thousands of Libyans, most of them young people, held a massive protest in Benghazi against the very extremists who murdered our people,” without acknowledging that the pro-American protest was largely in response to Obama’s intervention in Libya last year through NATO.   

On Afghanistan, the GOP nominee said he “will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” But that, too, is fundamentally Obama’s policy. 

Despite his newfound caution on policy, strong neoconservative overtones remained in Romney’s speech. “The 21st century can and must be an American century,” he said, embracing the call to arms of American “exceptionalists” who see the nation’s role as bringing freedom and democracy to all corners of the globe, even though such efforts have now bogged the nation down in 11 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In one of the differences with Obama that he didn’t retreat from, Romney suggested that he might want troops back to Iraq, saying that “America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence.” And he directed harsh criticism at Moscow, saying it “casts a long shadow over young democracies” in Europe and that he would show “no flexibility with Vladimir Putin” when it comes to “effective missile defenses to protect against threats,” albeit without repeating his controversial description of Russia as America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” Romney also managed to criticize Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia as an abandonment of Europe while at the same time calling for more U.S. leadership in Asia, where “China’s recent assertiveness is sending chills through the region.”

Romney said again he will avoid the “deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military,” even though the defense sequester that looms was agreed to by both parties -- and both parties want to avoid it.

For the most part, however, Romney spoke of “reaffirming” and “recommitting” to policies that are already in place. As with his domestic policy shifts, one big question remained: which Romney would America get as president? The former hawk who for months has embraced ultra-hawkish views across the globe, or the new moderate who likes to quote George Cc. Marshall?