10/09/2012 06:06 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Foreign Policy by Platitude

Yesterday's foreign policy speech by Mitt Romney was the worst of both worlds -- shallow rhetoric followed by a few ill-considered specifics.

On the rhetorical front, we learned that candidate Romney supports a "freer, more prosperous and more peaceful world"; believes in showing "resolve"; and would promote "freedom and opportunity." Who wouldn't?

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright rightly dismissed Romney's speech as "full of platitudes," further noting that "peace through strength is not really a foreign policy."

This is not to suggest that Romney said nothing. He made a few disconnected promises that reinforced the point that he has no viable strategy for addressing 21st-century challenges.

Romney would arm the Syrian opposition, but only the good guys, as if it was possible to tightly control the final destination of U.S. weapons poured into the midst of a chaotic civil war. We tried that in Afghanistan, where U.S. covert arms supplies were siphoned off and used to arm a new generation of terrorists while providing a breeding ground for Al Qaeda. Sending heavy arms to Syria would indeed mark a break from Obama administration policy, but Romney seems blissfully unaware of the risks involved.

On Iran, Romney promised to tighten sanctions, station more combat ships in the area, and move to prevent Iran from developing the capability to build nuclear weapons, as opposed to the weapons themselves. The latter position tracks closely with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's "red line" for military action against Iran. At a minimum, it appears that Romney would stand back and watch Israel launch its own attack on Iran without lifting a finger to persuade Israeli leaders of the potentially disastrous consequences of such a move. Even worse, Romney might launch a U.S. attack in conjunction with Israel, in part because he wants "no daylight" between U.S. and Israeli policies.

Romney further noted that there would be "no flexibility with Vladimir Putin" over U.S. missile defenses in Europe. Failure to even discuss possible adjustments in an anti-missile system will simply stymie efforts towards further nuclear arms reductions on the road to their complete elimination, an outcome that should be a central goal of U.S. foreign policy. And Romney's view, stated elsewhere, that Russia is a dangerous adversary will not bode well for efforts to meet one of his other foreign policy goals, tighter sanctions on Iran, which will depend upon Russian cooperation.

The final pillar of Romney's counterproductive "tough guy" posture is his pledge to "roll back" what he describes as President Obama's "deep and arbitrary cuts" in Pentagon spending. It's not clear which "cuts" Romney is referring to. The Obama administration's current plan, which has been inaccurately described as a program of substantial cuts, is in fact a leveling off of spending at current, historically high levels. Obama's plan only makes "cuts" if compared with the Pentagon's bloated wish list.

It is possible that Romney is referring to the impacts on Pentagon of sequestration, the imposition of across-the-board reductions in discretionary spending that would be triggered if Congress and the president fail to agree on a substantial deficit reduction package. The first problem with this statement is that the reductions required under sequestration are not "Obama's." They are the result of a compromise between the White House and Congress, voted for by such Republican luminaries as House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R-WI).

As for the budgetary impact of sequestration, it would reduce Pentagon spending levels, but the reductions would be far less than in any other post-World War II defense build-down. Spending would remain well above the post-World War II average, at about the same levels that prevailed during the second term of the George W. Bush administration -- a very good year for the Pentagon.

Romney is right on one point. The across-the-board cuts imposed by sequestration are a terrible way to manage a build-down; they would prevent policy makers from eliminating ineffective, wasteful, and unnecessary programs while maintaining or increasing investment in programs that work. But reductions of the size that would be required under sequestration are perfectly manageable, and could actually increase our security, if properly implemented. Real reductions could force the military to set priorities and weed out wasteful, unnecessary projects.

Last but not least is Romney's pledge to build 15 ships a year, including three submarines. This could require increasing the Navy budget by up to one-third. And all of this for a navy that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has noted is already larger than the next 13 navies in the world combined, many of which belong to U.S. allies.

Risking war with Iran, pouring weapons into Syria, undermining nuclear arms control and increasing Pentagon spending are dangerous and counterproductive policies that will not prepare the United States to deal with the new challenges of the 21st century. Nor will chanting magic words like "resolve."

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex.