Politico: Mitt Romney opens the foreign policy debate

September 13, 2012

Upheaval in the Middle East has blasted through this most domestic of presidential campaigns. And GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s activist foreign policy views — for months ignored by the campaign’s economy-focused spotlight — now sit front and center in a political to-and-fro launched by his campaign over the deadly attacks in Libya and Egypt.

In Romney’s view, the United States should already have engaged openly with the Syrian opposition to provide weapons and other forms of support outside of U.S. ground troops, should have come out forcefully in support of Iran’s “Green Revolution” and should strongly back Israel within the context of stopping Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

On all these fronts, the Obama administration has been active and engaged. But in the view of the Romney camp, its actions have been insufficient when it comes to exerting U.S. power in an unambiguous way. Where the Obama team has sought to find a middle ground and multilateral paths forward, the Romney administration would, presumably, be prepared to step out and lead — alone, if necessary.

Romney weighed in on Tuesday’s grim events in the Middle East just before the Sept. 11 anniversary ended, sending out a statement that ignited a day of press-release volleys and on-camera tit-for-tat. Romney expressed outrage at the “attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi.” He called it “disgraceful that the Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn the attacks … but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

The early statement from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that Romney saw as overly conciliatory condemned “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions.”

Wednesday morning, Romney pressed a foreign policy offensive. “It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” he said from Florida. “The statement was akin to an apology, and I think was a severe miscalculation.”

Romney’s comments are only the latest in a string of muscular foreign policy positions the former governor has embraced throughout this cycle, including labeling China a currency manipulator, calling Russia America’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe” and charging that the president started his term with an “apology tour.”

On Iran, Romney foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that if the Iranians “continue in their relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons that will destabilize the entire region, threaten our dear and reliable friend the state of Israel, force various Sunni regimes, probably, to seek out their own nuclear breakout — then the only thing worse than using force is that Iran has nuclear weapons.”

Throughout Romney’s foreign policy comments runs the narrative that the Obama administration is insufficiently loyal to its allies, inadequately tough on its foes and apologetic in its exercise of U.S. power, a linchpin of global security. A Romney administration’s foreign policy, the candidate suggests, would be far brawnier and more decisive.

So while some in Washington expressed surprise at Romney picking a campaign brawl over the attacks in the Middle East, this is a debate about use and misuse of U.S. power for which the Romney campaign has been spoiling.

“The absence of a statement or condemnation from the Obama team is a weak response. They waited, they blinked,” says Richard Grenell, a former Romney adviser and Republican foreign policy expert who remains close to the campaign. “It is always appropriate to quickly defend America. Always.”

At a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars shortly before he accepted the GOP nomination, Romney talked about the importance of the “American Century.” “If we do not have the strength or vision to lead,” Romney said, “then other powers will take our place, pulling history in a very different direction. A just and peaceful world depends on a strong and confident America.”

In that same speech, Romney asserted, “the people of Israel deserve better than what they have received from the leader of the free world” and argued “there is no greater danger in the world today than the prospect of the ayatollahs in Tehran possessing nuclear weapons capability.”

Though conservative commentators, including Peggy Noonan and Matthew Dowd, expressed disapproval — with Noonan saying on Fox that “sometimes when really bad things happen, when hot things happen, cool words or no words is the way to go,” the Romney team showed no sign of backing down.

One informal adviser said, “GOP foreign policy hands love his jump to defend America.”

Several prominent voices from the “realist” wing of the GOP, including former Secretary of State Colin Powell, early this year had voiced their concern that Romney is listening too often to more “far to the right” advisers. But other than naming former World Bank President Robert Zoellick to lead his national security transition should he be elected president, Romney has laid out a series of foreign policy positions very much in line with a more activist foreign policy founded on American exceptionalism.

Until now, few Americans have focused on foreign policy differences between the two men running for president. But Romney’s statements this week may change that. And, for a few moments in this presidential campaign focused so sharply on the U.S. economy and the devastating impact of stubbornly high unemployment, voters may focus on where the candidates stand when it comes to the world outside America’s borders.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.” She analyzed public policy for PIMCO, after working as a journalist for the ABC News Political Unit and “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” She is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Follow her on Twitter at @gaylelemmon.