"In GOP race," proclaimed the New York Times' headline writers, "foreign policy is mainly a footnote." On Friday, the off-and-on frontrunner decided to prove the Gray Lady wrong.
Months before the first binding presidential vote, Mitt Romney declared his first war. His foe, like Tim Pawlenty's before him, is "isolationism."
The setting was a major address at The Citadel, located in the crucial early primary state of South Carolina, on the day Romney rolled out his foreign policy team. If this collection of advisers resembled George W. Bush's, so did portions of the former Massachusetts governor's American century speech resemble Bush's second inaugural address.
"God did not create this country to be a nation of followers," Romney declared. "America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will."
That someone else, Romney argued, is likely to have values less conducive to human freedom than the United States. He continued: "Without American leadership, without clarity of American purpose and resolve, the world becomes a far more dangerous place, and liberty and prosperity would surely be among the first casualties."
Romney rejected any cuts in the Pentagon budget. Military spending, he said, must increase. He decried President Obama's foreign policy as "feckless," and took a thinly veiled shot at his less interventionist primary opponents. "This is America's moment," he said. "We should embrace the challenge, not shrink from it, not crawl into an isolationist shell, not wave the white flag of surrender, nor give in to those who assert America's time has passed."
"I will not surrender America's role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today," Romney said.
Hard to believe that this was the same Mitt Romney John McCain rebuked for seeming to equivocate about the surge during the 2008 campaign and appearing to want out of Afghanistan during this one. During his Citadel speech Romney called for a review of the Afghanistan war, which could result in either continuing or winding down the decade-long conflict.
Alone among the top-tier Republican presidential candidates last time around, Romney refused to answer questions about whether, in hindsight, invading Iraq was the correct decision. Last week, Romney told large swathes of Republican primary voters, as well as the party's defense and foreign policy establishments, what they wanted to hear. But as continues to be the case with social issues, there will be those who ask if this is the real Mitt Romney.
There is no mistaking who Romney plans to take his foreign policy advice from. His 22-member team predictably drew heavily from top aides to the last Republican president: counterterrorism adviser Cofer Black, Dan Senor, spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority, Meghan O'Sullivan, former Bush deputy national security adviser on Iraq and Afghanistan, former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden, to name a few. Liberal hawk Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution praised it as a "strong and diverse team."
By speaking firmly and presenting a collection of seasoned advisers, Romney reinforces a critique of Obama that resonates among swing voters as well as conservatives: that the president is green, indecisive, and uncomfortable with American power. It recalls Dick Cheney's 2000 campaign refrain to U.S. servicemen: "Help is on the way."
But weren't there lessons, at least some of them chastening, to be learned from the kind of help the Bush administration provided? When they flirted with presidential bids, Haley Barbour, Mitch Daniels, and Chris Christie, all governors, seemed to think there were. Romney and Rick Perry, another governor, don't seem to think so and they are actually running.
Other questions arise. If isolationism is on the upswing, why is the United States engaged in even more foreign wars than it was under Bush? How does one tell the American people we are broke when it comes to the entitlement programs polls show they still rather like but we have plenty of money to continue the foreign entanglements about which they have doubts?
The economist Herb Stein is often quoted as giving this simple explanation of the federal budget: figure out how much it will cost to defend the country, pay for it, and then see how much money is left for everything else. It's wiser advice than elected officials have usually taken. Whether that entails perpetually accepting the price tag for what Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan once called "benevolent global hegemony" will be one of the great debates of this presidential election.
Mitt Romney has told us, provisionally at least, where he comes down on this question. He has also told us something else: the demise of George W. Bush's foreign policy is greatly exaggerated.
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