I’ve just returned from a gorgeous Maine vacation in time to follow the hoopla of the presidential conventions (from the sublime to the ridiculous?). I’ll be writing on Mitt Romney’s foreign-policy potential — and President Obama’s performance — as the conventions progress.
But having read the GOP’s foreign-policy platform, with its slashing critique of the president, I can already say this: A Romney foreign policy would likely wind up looking much like Obama’s. Despite a call for another “American century” in which we possess the “strongest military and strongest economy,” a President Romney would soon confront the realities of today’s world.
For starters, a hefty part of the GOP’s foreign-policy platform, and its call for global leadership, focuses on boosting the size and weaponry of the military. Indeed, Romney wants to jack up defense spending even while slashing taxes. That dream will soon fade if he reaches the White House. The numbers simply will not add up.
The biggest threat to the defense budget comes from possible across-the-board defense cuts that will be triggered if the two parties can’t agree on how to slash the deficit. The onus is on Republicans, who voted for the automatic cuts and have refused to consider a compromise with Democrats that could avoid them.
Even if a bipartisan miracle occurs, and a compromise is agreed to, the economy won’t sustain the kind of defense budget Republicans dream of. President Romney would be forced to make the same calculations as did Obama: how to protect U.S. security and sustain America’s global leadership in an era of budgetary restraint.
There are hints that some of the platform’s authors recognize the problem. The document ignores Iraq, and hardly mentions Afghanistan (except to take a swipe at Obama’s plan to withdraw the last of 30,000 “surge troops” before the November elections). But last week, Romney’s choice for vice president, Rep. Paul Ryan, said Obama’s 2014 deadline to draw down most U.S. troops was a “good, reasonable timeline.”
In other words, some Republicans conclude, as Obama did, that we can’t indefinitely maintain a large fighting force in foreign countries.
That same collision with reality is likely to temper other GOP foreign-policy dreams.
On fighting terrorism, the platform bizarrely chides Obama for dropping the phrase global war on terror and attacks his “weak” response to international terrorism. His decision to green-light the operation that killed Osama bin Laden barely elicits a snide comment. Yet Romney would no doubt find himself following the same antiterrorist policy as Obama’s — using drones and special forces — because so few good options exist.
And then there’s Iran, and the effort to halt Tehran’s suspected nuclear enrichment program. The platform denounces Obama’s “failed engagement policy” with Iran, leaving out any mention of the draconian international sanctions imposed on Tehran under U.S. pressure.
Despite his bellicose rhetoric about military options, a President Romney would soon hear from Pentagon brass that the costs of a military strike on Iran’s enrichment sites would be high, and might not even stop Iran’s nuclear program. He’d also hear that if Israel attacks Tehran on its own (encouraged by Republican leaders), this would further inflame an unstable region, while practically guaranteeing Iran would go for a bomb.
In other words, Romney would face the same roster of bad choices that confront Obama. He’d learn that the threat of an Islamist takeover of nuclear-armed Pakistan is far more dangerous than the uncertain likelihood of an Iranian nuclear breakout. (Pakistan is hardly mentioned in the Republican platform, except for the bromide that we should “expect” the Pakistan government to sever connections with insurgents. Good luck!)
And as for Israel — for which the Republican platform pledges “unequivocal support” — a Romney White House would also be faced with the tragic realities that Obama confronted.
Obama, too, offered unequivocal support to Israel. He envisioned two democratic states, Israel and Palestine, side by side, with secure borders — as the Republican platform specifies. But here’s what the platform ignores: Any prospect of a two-state solution is being foreclosed by Jewish settlements that divide the occupied West Bank into cantons. Even if the Mideast stabilizes, and new Arab leaders seek peace, the two-state option will no longer exist.
Republicans castigated Obama for trying (unsuccessfully) to persuade Israel that its settlement policy was self-destructive. But a Romney presidency would have to deal with the repercussions of a policy that locks Israelis and Palestinians into one state.
The bottom line: It’s easy to talk tough, and channel the ghost of Ronald Reagan, when writing a foreign-policy platform. But once in the White House, Republicans would find that — in these straitened times — it’s much tougher to project American power, and takes more careful calculation.
One can debate how best to project U.S. leadership in such times. My guess is that Romney would find himself following Obama’s lead far more than he anticipates, or would like.