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Paul Waldman: On foreign policy, Romney's focus on 'strength' is a pose, not a principle


As voters, we have a problem when we try to figure out what a presidential candidate will do on foreign policy. If a candidate has a tax plan, there's a good chance he'll at least propose it to Congress, and it might pass in something like the form he suggests. But foreign policy is driven mostly by things that are out of our control. Over the next four years there will be crises and confrontations we can't predict, and it isn't easy to know how a new president would react. 

But we can certainly get an idea. And Mitt Romney's first foray into foreign policy last week didn't inspire a great deal of confidence. But if we step back from his momentary buffoonery and take a look at the things he's been saying about the topic over the last few years, a clear pattern emerges. What Mitt Romney clearly wants to do is bring back the foreign policy of George W. Bush. Hey, it worked out great the first time, right?

Romney's foreign policy beliefs can be summed up in the title of his autobiography: "No Apology." This is premised on the idea, utterly false but distressingly common in conservative circles, that Barack Obama traveled the world "apologizing for America" after taking office (it's a lie that Romney has repeated literally hundreds of times). The idea is that it doesn't so much matter what America does, what matters is the president's attitude. Listen to Romney talk foreign policy and it quickly becomes clear that he cares very, very much about attitude. We have to be confident. We have to be resolute. And most of all, we have to be strong. Strong in what way? Why, strong in a strong way, with our strength showing strongly how strong we are. 

Go through the foreign policy material on Romney's web site, and this idea keeps coming up. How will we extricate ourselves from Afghanistan and deal with our frenemy (to put it charitably) Pakistan? "We will only persuade Afghanistan and Pakistan to be resolute if they are convinced that the United States will itself be resolute," says Romney. And what about Iran? "Only if Iran understands that the United States is utterly determined when we say that their nuclear-weapons program is unacceptable is there a possibility that they will give up their nuclear aspirations peacefully." The title on the page listing Romney's foreign policy team is "Guiding America's Strength Abroad."

You might remember that the last Republican president was big on looking strong, too. Yet for some reason America's adversaries didn't wilt before the spectacle of his manly strength. And today, the idea that Obama is weak and everything will be peachy if we have a strong president is one Republicans seem genuinely to believe. After the attacks last week on our embassy in Cairo and our consulate in Benghazi, a Romney adviser told The Washington Post that if his candidate were president, the kind of people who killed the American ambassador to Libya would quake before Romney's strength. Paul Ryan offered his explanation for these latest attacks: "If we project weakness, they come. If we are strong, our adversaries will not test us and our allies will respect us." They seem to think the rest of the world is like a collection of disrespectful children, and if you give them a stern look and maybe a whack across the face, then they'll remember who's boss.

Running through these statements is the conviction that our current and potential adversaries around the world don't have their own incentives and goals, they merely act according to whether they think America is strong or weak. You don't really need to understand them or consider the potential negative consequences of acting rashly. If they're not doing what we'd like, it's because they think we're weak; if we convince them we're strong, they'll get in line. So in his press conference responding to the attacks in Cairo and Benghazi, Romney said, "My foreign policy has three fundamental branches. First, confidence in our cause. A recognition that the principles America was based upon are not something we shrink from or apologize for. That we stand for those principles. The second is clarity in our purpose, which is that when we have a foreign policy objective, we describe it honestly and clearly to the American people, the Congress, and to the people of the world. And number three is resolve in our might."

Confidence, clarity, resolve. Those aren't policies, or even principles; those are poses. And "strength" isn't an idea. It's just an attitude.

Of course, there's one foreign-policy issue on which Romney's faith in the power of strength and resolve suddenly seems to disappear: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That leaked fundraiser video shows Romney declaring that "there's just no way" to reach a peaceful settlement of the conflict, because the Palestinians as a group aren't interested in peace and are "committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel." He added: "You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem."

In other words, a resolution is impossible, so why should the U.S. bother trying? Perhaps someone should ask Romney why strength and resolve won't do the job.


Paul Waldman is a Contributing Editor with The American Prospect magazine and the author or co-author of a number of books about media and politics, including The Press Effect: Politicians, Journalists, and the Stories That Shape the Political World. His writing has appeared in The Washington PostThe Los Angeles TimesThe Boston Globe, and many other newspapers and magazines.