It was striking how strong Mitt Romney's victory speech was in New Hampshire last week, not merely the boastful strength of a candidate who's on a roll, but one throwing down gauntlets. He was testing the themes of his challenge to President Obama, not Gingrich, Paul, and Santorum.
As we've seen for months, the themes are mainly about economic growth. But there are also sharp criticisms of Obama on foreign policy. How well do those add up?
If Romney wins, it will be based on economic hardship, but foreign policy will be engaged. Like his dodgy credentials as a businessman, his ideas about America's role in the world are superficial.
In fact, my one encounter with Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts underscores just how superficial he can be. I was hosting former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami at MIT on September 11, 2005. Romney chimed in: "I think it's an outrage that in this season of memory of those that lost their lives, that we would be inviting someone who is a terrorist to this country," he said:
Khatami, a great reformer and hardly a "terrorist," was also speaking at Harvard and making other visits in the area.
"It's outrageous, and for that reason, I have instructed our state agencies, and particularly our executive office of public safety not to provide any support whatsoever for his visit. And that means not to provide the escort and security personnel which would normally be associated with a person of interest of this nature."
Romney equated Khatami with current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the latter's noxious comments about Israel, a completely false and ignorant comparison. The incident, or small flap, is nonetheless typical of Romney: a flourish of jingoism, pandering to Jewish voters, ill-informed, and tone deaf on foreign policy. (Khatami, of course, being the only Iranian leader to openly reach out to the U.S. since the revolution.)
We thought it amusing that Romney was grandstand like that: the security provided by the State Department -- including tight precautions on every aspect of his movement -- exposed Romney's boast about refusing security as the empty threat it was. Special-ops guys with AK-47s drawn and sharpshooters at the ready were blanketing the MIT campus, where basically no one but a few stray, nerdy students could be seen on the sidewalks. That the state police would somehow be missed was laughable.
Fast forward to 2011-12. Romney's campaign materials -- which include a book and a "white paper" along with scripted remarks -- reveal two themes that are neither original nor compelling. The first is that Obama has somehow squandered American pre-eminence in the world, and Romney vows to restore this greatness. The second is that Obama has let down our guard in ways that actually jeopardize U.S. security. These are old Republican tropes, thrown at every prominent Democratic leader since the Second World War.
"A perspective has been gaining currency, including within high councils of the Obama administration," says the Romney white paper, which regards "the United States as a power in decline... [that] is seen as both inexorable and a condition that can and should be managed for the global good rather than reversed." It rejects American Exceptionalism, and instead speaks of "the ill-considered overreaching of the United States. This view of America in decline, and America as a potentially malign force, has percolated far and wide. It is intimately related to the torrent of criticism, unprecedented for an American president, that Barack Obama has directed at his own country."
Romney has excoriated Obama frequently for the president's alleged apologies for U.S. misbehavior, part of a constant drumbeat from the right. The Washington Post put this charge to rest in a detailed assessment last month. Still, in that New Hampshire victory speech, Romney said, "President Obama has adopted an appeasement strategy. He believes America's role as leader in the world is a thing of the past... He apologizes for America; I will never apologize for the greatest nation in the history of the Earth."
The second theme revolves mainly around military spending, as this is in right-wing thinking the vital metric of American greatness. Romney charges that the military is in disrepair and spending is dangerously low. He says, for example, that he would insist on "setting core defense spending... at a floor of 4 percent of GDP." (It was actually 4.8% of GDP in 2010.) Whatever the prospective cuts in the growth of defense spending result from the budget impasse forced by the Republican leadership in Congress, a gambit that earned full-throated support from Romney.
Similarly, Romney insists that Obama is creating a "hollow force." What creates a hollow force, however, is recruiting, training, and deploying too few troops when trying to fight two wars, forcing soldiers and marines to undertake 3-4 tours of Iraq and Afghanistan, and ending up with armed forces that suffer a 30 percent rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. That's a hollow force, and it's a consequence of policies from which Romney never deviated.
Romney joined with others on the right to criticize Obama's withdrawal from Iraq, a daft charge given the popular support for the move (78% approved according to a November poll), Obama's 2008 election pledge to withdraw, and the Iraqis' own preferences. In fact, few of Romney's specific positions appear to earn the public's backing. His avid support for Israel's Likudnik government -- another of the right-wing's red lines -- is not backed by the U.S. public, in which a plurality thinks (according to a recent CNN poll) that economic and military aid to Israel should be reduced.
In that same CNN poll, the public by a large margin (82-16) does not favor military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon; does not want the U.S. to invade other countries to pre-empt putative threats; and does not favor continuing the U.S. war in Afghanistan -- setting the American public squarely against Romney's stated positions. In all but the last, of course, Romney's stances carry rebukes of Obama's supposed weakness.
What Romney will surely emphasize is his promise to restore America's greatness. This may appeal marginally to a people weary with bad news. But the fact is that Romney's grasp for this mantle will look too much like Bush's unilateral recklessness. The promises Obama has kept -- to leave Iraq, to take the fight to the Taliban, to get bin Laden, to improve America's global relations -- will surely resound far more clearly.