Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Mitt Romney claims to disagree with President Barack Obama on many aspects of foreign policy. We’re still waiting to hear what those differences might be.
I wasn’t surprised that Romney’s highly touted Major Policy Speech on foreign affairs Monday offered few specifics. But even in its generalities, Romney’s tour d’horizon sounded very much like a speech Obama might have given recounting his overseas initiatives over the past four years.
Romney pledged to “put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.” Obama has repeatedly said the same thing, most recently in his address to the U.N. General Assembly last month, when he said the United States “will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Romney said he would “work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.” Obama has done just that, according to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said in July that “this administration, under President Obama, is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past.”
Romney said that in Syria, he would “identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values” and then work “through our international partners” in the region to ensure those rebel forces obtain the arms they need. Obama has done that, too. This summer, according to widespread reports, Obama signed an intelligence “finding” authorizing covert assistance to the Syrian rebels. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supporting the rebels with arms under U.S. guidance.
In Afghanistan, Romney said, he will work to ensure a “real and successful transition” of security control to Afghan forces “by the end of 2014.” That is basically a word-for-word recitation of Obama’s policy. Which Romney has criticized in the past. But never mind.
Specifically in Libya, but also throughout the Middle East, Romney promised to make clear that the United States stands with those who seek democracy, freedom and prosperity — and that we stand against the forces of extremism and terrorism, such as al-Qaida. “In short, it’s a struggle between liberty and tyranny,” Romney said. Moments earlier, Romney had described the slaying of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi, Libya, and the events that followed. Tens of thousands of Libyans poured into the streets to denounce the terrorists who mounted the attack — and to express their support for the United States. Well, in Libya, as elsewhere, people already have a good idea where this country stands.
In his secretly recorded “47 percent” remarks in May, Romney said the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever” in peace with Israel, and therefore proposed to kick the peace process can down the road until this attitude changes. In his speech Monday, Romney retreated to the position taken by both George W. Bush and Obama: There should be “a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state” side by side with Israel.
“On this vital issue, the president has failed,” Romney said. And this is true. Obama joins presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder, Clinton and Bush the Younger in not having brought full and lasting peace to the Middle East.
I did hear one concrete departure from Obama’s policies. Romney pledged to increase the Defense Department’s budget. Specifically, he promised that he would have the Navy build 15 new ships a year, including three submarines.
For the moment, leave aside the fact that this is spending the nation can’t afford and the Pentagon doesn’t want. What does Romney intend for these new naval assets, and the other weapons systems his spending would buy, to accomplish? What’s the mission? Is it to show we’re the only remaining superpower? Is there a human being who doesn’t get that?
If Romney weren’t pretending to believe that government spending never boosts the economy, I’d say his Pentagon shopping spree sounds awfully like a Keynesian stimulus program.
I’m not arguing that Obama’s foreign policy has been perfect. I can think of a number of situations I believe he should have handled differently. But I defy anyone who heard Romney’s speech to explain how he differs from Obama, practically or even philosophically.
To the extent there’s any distinction at all, it’s rhetorical. Romney seems to believe that speaking in a more belligerent tone somehow changes everything. The world is unlikely to be impressed.
Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post.