Mitt Romney has delivered a lot of dishonest speeches in recent months, but Monday’s address on foreign policy may be the most mendacious yet.
It was expected that he would distort President Obama into a caricature of Jimmy Carter. But it was astonishing to watch Romney spin a daydream of himself as some latter-day George Marshall, bringing peace, prosperity and hope to a chaotic world — this from a man who couldn’t drop in on the London Olympics without alienating our closest ally and turning himself into a transcontinental laughingstock.
To the extent that Romney recited valid criticisms of Obama’s policies, he offered no alternatives. To the extent he spelled out specific steps he would take to deal with one problem or another, he merely recited actions that Obama has already taken.
Let’s go through the text, point by point.
Romney began with the recent attacks on the Libyan consulate, the killing of the U.S. ambassador, and the anti-American riots that broke out across the Middle East — all signs, he claimed, that “the threats we face have grown so much worse” while President Obama does nothing.
Let’s pause here. First, these threats are not worsening; in fact, the number of attacks on U.S. embassies is near an all-time low. Second, the spate of attacks, riots, and American flag-burnings, which followed the attacks in Libya and Egypt, ended almost immediately. Romney himself, after recounting the grim events, noted that we’re now seeing “something hopeful” — protests by “tens of thousands of Libyans” against the militants and in support of the American ambassador.
Yet Romney ignored the reasons why the riots subsided and why the Libyan people went after the militants. These things happened because President Obama had supported the Libyan rebels in their resistance to Moammar Gadhafi — and because, after the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Obama had a long phone conversation with Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, spelling out the facts of life: that Morsi had to choose between siding with the Islamist militants (who formed part of his constituency) and rejoining the civilized world. Romney repeatedly bemoaned Obama’s passivity, but one can only ask: What is he talking about?
Romney then turned to the topic near and dear to the voters of Florida in particular. “The relationship between the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel, our closest ally in the region, has suffered great strains,” he said, adding that they have “set back the hopes of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries.”
First, yes, there are strains in Obama’s relationship with Netanyahu — but they’re no more severe than the strains in Netanyahu’s relationship with his own military establishment. Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barack, said in a CNN interview two months ago, “This administration under President Obama is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past.” Many Israeli security officials think Netanyahu has gone way too far in his pressure on Obama. An American politician can support Israel’s security without supporting the Israeli prime minister in his own domestic quarrels — much less agreeing with everything he says.
“In Iraq,” Romney claimed, “the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence.” This is true. But then he said, “America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence,” adding that Obama tried to secure a more gradual drawdown but “failed.”
The facts are these. First, President George W. Bush signed an agreement with the Iraqi government in November 2008 stating, “All U.S. forces are to withdraw from all Iraqi territory, water and airspace no later than the 31st of December of 2011.” Second, as the deadline neared, Obama did explore options to keep some of those troops in Iraq for a while longer — but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not want them to stay. Iraq was, and is, a sovereign nation. If Romney thinks he could have negotiated a deal to stay, he doesn’t say what it would have been. He can’t, because there was no such deal anywhere near the table.
Then came a gratuitously outrageous statement. “America,” Romney said, “can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on al-Qaida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.”
Really? President Obama deserves no credit for dealing these blows? Obama has personally ordered many of these blows (as some in his own party have complained), and, as is well known, he ordered the raid on bin Laden’s compound against the advice of Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who thought it was too risky.
Romney followed this with the most stupefying attack in the entire speech, worth quoting at some length:
I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region — and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination. For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions, not just words, that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated.
Obama has long been doing all of these things. He has ratcheted up sanctions and persuaded others (including Russia) to go along, to the point where Iran’s currency has plummeted by 40 percent, prompting the merchant class to protest in the streets. Two aircraft carriers have been on constant patrol within range of Iran since the summer. And U.S. security assistance to Israel, as its own defense minister said, is at near-peak levels.
Romney then pledged to boost defense spending, saying, “I will roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense that would devastate our military.”
Both statements are highly misleading. These “deep and arbitrary cuts” in the defense budget (he also calls them “catastrophic”) will go into effect only if Congress cannot agree on a deficit-reduction plan. Last year, Congress agreed that if they couldn’t devise such a plan by the end of 2012, the entire federal budget — including defense — would be cut across the board.
Romney is right that, in some cases, most notably Syria, Obama has not done as much as he might have to influence the course of events. However, there is almost nothing in Romney’s speech to suggest that he would do better — and a great deal to indicate he’d do much worse.
Fred Kaplan is Slate’s “War Stories” columnist and author of the forthcoming book “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War.”