While the policy specifics -- and lack thereof -- in Mitt Romney's VFW speech have gotten most of the attention, it's the underlying thematics aimed at the broader electorate that were the main political play.
In some elections there is a central foreign policy issue -- Iraq in 2008, 9/11 in 2004, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Iranian hostages in 1980, the Vietnam War in 1972, the Korean War in 1952. In this election, with the country not facing any major foreign policy crisis but the American people understandably anxious amidst the uncertainties of such a rapidly changing world, it's more about voters' general sense of how each candidate sees the world and what he'll do to keep them, their families and the country safe and secure. While not always articulated in these terms, these big picture concerns run along three themes: conception of power, assessment of threats, and view of America and its role.
I'm Strong, He's Soft
What Republican hasn't made this claim over the last 40 years? Romney has two particular problems in doing so. With no military service and no policy record, he doesn't have much in his personal or professional experience to back it up. And the accusations of leaks and political trumpeting just don't trump the fact that Obama got Osama.
Going forward the even greater concern is the underlying misconception of what Power is and how to use it in this 21st -century world. We throw our weight around, others go along, get out of the way, or pay the price. The strong do what they have the power to do, as the old adage goes, and the weak accept what they have to accept.
This may resonate rhetorically but doesn't hold up in reality. The Iraq war surely proved that. Yet Romney has adopted the very conception of power that led us into Iraq from many of the very people who led the way.
For the Bushian neo-conservatives Iraq never was really just about Iraq. It was a demonstration case for the display of American power.The neo-cons were right about one thing. Iraq did have a demonstration effect -- largely, though, the opposite of what was intended. Power was squandered, not shepherded. Global influence was undermined. Domestically the American economy took a $3 trillion-plus hit. Almost 4500 soldiers lost their lives.
American foreign policy needs to be grounded in a conception of power that is more strategy than bluster and ideology. Romney repeatedly stresses "resolve" and how credibility depends on showing toughness. But it was no less than Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual godfather of power politics, who decades ago stressed that credibility depended more on judgment than resolve, more on knowing where, when and how to commit your power than reflexive toughness.
This is especially true when it comes to using military force. The American people don't want a president who is too gun shy. President Obama has amply demonstrated he's not. But after a decade of war they are even more concerned about a president who is too trigger happy.
I See the Bad Guys, He's Naïve
Threats should never be underestimated. But they also shouldn't be overestimated. Over-reactions can be just as dangerous as under-reactions. Threat-mongering doth not a sound and savvy foreign policy make.
Lest one think the Russia-as-our-greatest-geopolitical threat remark was just a slip, the VFW speech elevated Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez from a serious issue to an ostensibly vital interest. Gracias, Chavez must be saying; other than his battle with cancer, he hasn't had this much attention in a long time. Meanwhile the rest of Latin America -- those whom Romney says he'd make a higher priority -- worries that such a policy would fall into the age-old trap of making the Yanquis an easy diversionary target and undermine their own efforts to contain and counter Chavez.
It's also telling that the very day Romney made these accusations the top Obama administration counterterrorism official was in Bulgaria providing key intelligence related to the Hezbollah terrorist attack on Israeli tourists. So we're to believe that the administration isn't also on top of whatever Hezbollah may be doing in our own hemisphere?
As to Obama's naiveté, there is not only bin Laden but numerous al Qaeda and other terrorist leaders who, as a top administration aide put it, have been taken off the battlefield.
I Believe in America, He Doesn't
While he didn't sing "God Bless America" on that Reno stage, Romney ended the speech with the same "believe in America" that is the tag line for his television ads. He repeatedly alluded to all the ways President Obama supposedly had apologized for America -- although when that same evening Chris Matthews pressed a Republican surrogate for specific examples he couldn't name a single one.
The deeper meme here is American exceptionalism, the invocation of American greatness and uniqueness. Some see it as doing so in ways that reflect arrogance and historical distortion. This was part of the distinction President Obama tried to draw earlier in his administration in acknowledging how other countries and cultures have their own sense of exceptionalism. In campaign mode, while using the term less than Romney and other Republicans, the strategy has been more to embrace the concept and redefine it. The contrast is between American exceptionalism as anesthetic, soothing anxieties by musing on the glories of the past, and as stimulant, energized by what made us great in the past to look forward to what it takes in today's world.
Foreign Policy as the Potential Marginal Difference
None of this ignores how much more electorally important the economy and other domestic issues are. But if it's a close election, foreign policy and these big picture differentiations could make that crucial marginal difference.