Conservative Flop on Foreign Policy

September 10, 2012

Against the backdrop of elections this fall, Americans tell the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that they reject conservative extremism on national security policy in favor of balanced, pragmatic approaches. This reality underlies the shift in the politics of national security on view in recent convention speeches. Gov. Romney’s failure to talk about the troops in Afghanistan (and his determination that it was not “important”) is the latest in a string of flops and miscalculations in an area where conservatives for decades held a political edge. Underlying public opinion suggests that new attacks may fill the airwaves but are unlikely to shift underlying realities – overseas or at home.

Americans tell pollsters what they want in foreign policy; conservative prescriptions at odds. This week the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released its survey of American opinion on U.S. foreign policy. Dan Drezner of Foreign Policy Magazine and the Fletcher School summarizes the striking results and their relationship to the fall campaign: “[I]f the Chicago Council results are accurate, independents basically want the exact opposite of what Mitt Romney is selling them…  He wants to boost defense spending rather than cut it.  He certainly wants to give the appearance that he would pursue a more hawkish policy towards Iran, Syria, Russia, North Korea, China and illegal immigrants than Barack Obama. That’s great — except it turns out most of America — and independents in particular — want pretty much the opposite of that… If you read the whole report, what’s striking is how much the majority view on foreign policy jibes with what the Obama administration has been doing in the world: military retrenchment from the Greater Middle East, a reliance on diplomacy and sanctions to deal with rogue states, a refocusing on East Asia, and prudent cuts in defense spending.” [Dan Drezner, 9/9/12]

Progressives are now the dominant foreign policy force in American politics. Slate national security columnist Fred Kaplan explains that the convention speeches and platforms “have cemented the fact that the Democratic party is now the party of national-security policy; not just a wise or thoughtful foreign and military policy, but any kind of thinking whatsoever about matters beyond the water’s edge… The clearest sign of the change in party dynamics was this: The Democrats feel so assured in their new role as guardians of national defense that they also talked openly about seeking peace, negotiating arms-reduction treaties with the Russians (which Romney opposes on the flimsiest of grounds), withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, and shifting money that was once spent on fighting wars to revitalizing our own cities—as Obama put it, ‘to do some nation-building right here at home.’”

Drezner adds, “Romney has badly bungled the foreign policy side of his campaign.  … Romney’s public pronouncements seemed logic-free and designed to play to the GOP base.  Then came July’s foreign trip, during which Romney managed to bungle what should have been some lovely photo-ops… His VP choice, Paul Ryan, has even less foreign policy experience than Romney — and no, voting for the Iraq war doesn’t count.  Finally, at the RNC, Romney failed to talk about the troops in Afghanistan, or veterans’ issues, or war more generally — the first time a GOP nominee has failed to do so since 1952.” [Fred Kaplan, 9/7/12. Dan Drezner, 9/9/12]

On the issues: Conservatives ignore reality.

Romney rhetoric, policy don’t match on Iran. In an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Romney referred to Iran as President Obama’s “greatest (foreign policy) failure,” and asserted “I will have a very difference approach with regard to Iran,” including “crippling sanctions.” However, as CNN journalist Tom Cohen explains, “the main differences on the issue between [Romney]… and the president he hopes to defeat in the November election involve tone and nuance more than substance.” Furthermore, there are already effective sanctions in place, Bloomberg reports, “U.S.-led sanctions against Iran are costing OPEC’s third-largest producer $133 million a day in lost sales without raising global crude prices, handing President Barack Obama an election-year foreign-policy victory. Shipments from Iran have plunged by 1.2 million barrels a day, or 52 percent, since the sanctions banning the purchase, transport, financing and insuring of Iranian crude began July 1, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.” This comes out to $48 billion in annual revenue, or 10 % of its economy. Meanwhile, there is time, “Iran’s progress toward bomb capacity is not as fast as some have feared and there is ample time for more talking, according to David Albright, president and founder of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security,” writes al Monitor’s Barbara Slavin.  [Mitt Romney via Fox News, 8/1/12. CNN, 7/30/12. Bloomberg, 8/1/2012. David Albright via al Monitor, 5/29/12]

Despite calls from his own party, veterans and Afghanistan don’t make the “laundry list” of “important” subjects to discuss. Governor Romney omitted both veterans and the war in Afghanistan from his lengthy speech at the RNC. As conservative icon Bill Kristol noted in the Weekly Standard, “The United States has some 68,000 troops fighting in Afghanistan. Over two thousand Americans have died in the more than ten years of that war, a war Mitt Romney has supported. Yet in his speech accepting his party’s nomination to be commander in chief, Mitt Romney said not a word about the war in Afghanistan. Nor did he utter a word of appreciation to the troops fighting there, or to those who have fought there. Nor for that matter were there thanks for those who fought in Iraq, another conflict that went unmentioned.” Romney responded later, “When you give a speech, you don’t go through a laundry list. You talk about the things that you think are important…” Later, Romney claimed  he had put forward his Afghanistan policy at the American Legion the day before his RNC speech – apparently referring to the few sentences that Politico described as “ In a 16-minute speech, he devoted, at most, 15 or 16 seconds to Afghanistan.” [William Kristol, 8/31/12. Policy Mic, 9/10/12. Politico, 9/9/12]

Romney still has not explained his expensive defense policy. Since the early days of the campaign, Gov. Romney has proposed tying Pentagon spending to 4% of GDP, a policy which would cost an additional $2.1 trillion over the next decade, according to analysis conducted by CNAS fellow Travis Sharp. Yet, as Defense News reports, “The GOP White House hopeful offered few specifics during his party’s convention about just how the additional defense dollars he is proposing would be spent.” Nor has Romney explained how he would pay for his expensive defense policy. As Jeffery Vanke, senior analyst at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, explains, “Romney has listed a few specific cuts he would make in discretionary spending, but they are a fraction of the extra defense spending he proposes.” Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution, noted the Romney proposal does not “reflect fiscal reality.”  [CNN Money, 5/10/12. Defense News, 9/8/12. Jeffrey Vanke and Peter Singer via CNN Money, 5/10/12]

 What We’re Reading

Yemeni officials say an airstrike has killed al Qaeda’s second-in-command leader in Yemen, Said al-Shihri.

Turkish authorities have begun demanding that Syrian refugees move away from the border region, either entering camps or going deeper inside Turkey.

Iraq’s vice president rejected as “politically motivated” his death sentence given by a Baghdad criminal court that found him guilty of masterminding the killing of two people.

The head of the UN nuclear watchdog pressed Iran to grant his inspectors immediate access to the Parchin military site.

India’s central bank will allow domestic entities to invest in Pakistan if they apply for the bank’s approval.

Pakistan’s president, the army chief and the foreign minister will visit the United States amidst renewed efforts to revive an important partnership.

China’s imports shrank unexpectedly in a sign the country’s economic slump is worsening.

German chancellor Angela Merkel announced she wants to stop Athens from leaving the euro zone at all costs.

A 25-nation group formally ends supervision of Kosovo, which has been in place since the former Serbian province declared independence after a bloody war.

A new study on the impact of repealing the U.S. military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy found no negative impact.

Commentary of the Day

Bill Keller evaluates consequences of potential US scenarios with Iran and suggests a preemptive strike would be the worst option.

Lawrence Korb explains why the United States can afford reductions in Pentagon spending.

Chris Rodgers assesses the imperfect internment regime spurred by the U.S. handover of the Bagram prison to Afghan control.

Col. Morris Davis asks where America should focus its values 11 years after the 9/11 attacks.

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