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Mitt Romney Recasts Himself as a Neocon

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By John Lyman of the Journal of Foreign Relations

Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP frontrunner, gave his first major foreign policy address at The Citadel military academy in South Carolina last Friday.

He mentioned President Ronald Reagan twice, and although his speech largely portrayed policies and positions that closely resemble those of George W. Bush, he neglected to mention the latter.

Despite the severe budgetary woes, which will force the scaling back of defense programs at the Pentagon, Mr. Romney sought to portray himself as a hawk and argued for increased military spending, especially for the U.S. Navy.

"The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors and to defend our allies and ourselves," Mr. Romney argued in front of the Citadel cadets. "If America is the undisputed leader of the world, it reduces our need to police a more chaotic world."

Ironically, Romney's bolstered military supremacy will be based on borrowed money from China, an economic rival.

He continued, "I will not surrender America's role in the world." In his criticisms leveled at the current White House occupant, a job he has wanted since 2007, "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."

Interestingly, while arguing that he would work alongside America's allies, he asserted that the United States would act unilaterally should the need require it.

"While America should work with other nations, we always reserve the right to act alone to protect our vital national interests."

Aside from asserting his administration's goal of supporting and bolstering Israel, he also listed Iran, Venezuela, North Korea and Cuba as areas of continued concern for the United States.

His focus on Iran and the wider Middle East was the most important aspect of his speech. While characterizing Israel as a "vital national interest" he asserted that he would deploy two aircraft carrier groups to the region to act as a deterrent against a nuclear Iran. "I will enhance our deterrent against the Iranian regime by ordering the regular presence of aircraft carrier task forces, one in the Eastern Mediterranean and one in the Persian Gulf region."

"And I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon is unacceptable," Romney asserted. "In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran's suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world."

Romney's assertions about the track that his administration would take and the realities on the ground seem to diverge from reality. Not just Barack Obama, but previous U.S. administrations have all failed to realize peace in the region. Past and present attempts to bridge the gap with the Iranians have failed to halt Tehran's march to eventually becoming a nuclear-armed state.

In a future foreign policy debate, President Obama would appear to be in a stronger position than he was several months ago, which puts a number of Republicans at a disadvantage, namely Romney and Gov. Rick Perry.

The Libyan operation has gone relatively well, the president ordered the operation that resulted in Osama bin Laden's death and the president was able to get the New START Treaty passed during the lame duck session of Congress. The U.S. is poised to be out of Iraq in the near term and the administration has begun to realize that a prolonged engagement in Afghanistan is futile and will only cost the U.S. more blood and treasure.

Any potential Romney administration would be heavy on defense spending, to the delight of neocons, but this would run counter to the current climate on Capitol Hill of cuts and more cuts in order to bring down the massive budget deficit.

In Romney's speech, he suggested increasing shipbuilding and deploying, year round, all 11 aircraft carrier groups. A carrier group consists of several warships to support any aircraft carrier. This is a hugely expensive commitment to make given the GOP advocacy of cutting unnecessary spending. Furthermore, many former and present Pentagon officials have questioned the mere fact that the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers when its nearest rivals, Russia and China, field so few.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates argued in a speech in 2010 that it was time to reevaluate the necessity of maintaining 11 aircraft carrier groups. "In terms of size and striking power, no other country has even one comparable ship," Gates argued.

"To be sure, the need to project power across the oceans will never go away," Gates said at the time.

"But, consider the massive over-match the U.S. already enjoys. Consider, too, the growing anti-ship capabilities of adversaries. Do we really need eleven carrier strike groups for another 30 years when no other country has more than one? Any future plans must address these realities."

Romney also made a commitment to ballistic missile defense in order to protect the U.S. from ballistic missiles launched by unfriendly states like Iran and North Korea.

While President Obama was lambasted by Senator John McCain and others for cancelling certain elements of the system, the administration has pursued implementing some version of it, although in such a way as to not inflame the Russians and ease concerns voiced by America's European allies.

In 2009, after consulting with former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, President Obama cancelled the anti-ballistic missile system that was planned for deployment in the Czech Republic and Poland. Mr. Obama plans to have in place a more versatile system, compared to the old system that exclusively relied on a land based system.

The new system "will feature deployments of increasingly capable sea- and land-based missile interceptors, primarily upgraded versions of the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), and a range of sensors in Europe to defend against the growing ballistic missile threat from Iran."

However, the overall theme of Romney's foreign policy address was to recast America as the leader of the free world and refute the notion that America is in decline. "This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world."

To achieve this, Romney disproportionately wants to rely on ramping up defense spending and implementing a ballistic missile defense system, which is largely viewed as a relic of the Cold War, and contrary to the wishes of an American public, tired after ten years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, act unilaterally should his administration deem it necessary.

Romney chose to give his speech at an opportune time. With the president's approval ratings hovering below 50 percent and Rick Perry faltering following his debate performances, Romney is taking advantage of the moment.

However, Gov. Romney will inevitably have to debate the president in several settings leading up to the general election in 2012, should he secure the nomination.

He would be well advised to flush his answers out more and come up with specifics about how he plans to fund any increases in defense spending. Even members of his own party have called for defense cuts and have even praised the president on a number of occasions. The apparent success of the Libyan operation and the recent drone missile attack that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, to name two in particular.

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