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10.07.11

Romney's Shallow Speech

The presidential frontrunner attacked Obama’s foreign policy—but Mitt’s speech was far from serious on the topic. Michael Tomasky on how Romney pandered to the GOP base and offered no real solutions.

It practically goes without saying that Mitt Romney’s big foreign-policy speech at the Citadel Friday was shallow and hollow and would—if its precepts were followed—result in exactly the kind of weakened America he accuses President Obama of having created (on purpose, of course, being Muslim and all, although Romney doesn’t come out and say that). The text isn’t really a policy document at all. It’s a political document, aimed at pleasing three constituencies: the war caucus, some Pentagon procurement people, and maybe especially the Israel lobby.

The war caucus passages are easy enough to identify. Some take the shape of whacks at Obama. A mention of “the feckless policies of the last three years” came toward the top, right after the obligatory line about our porous border. That would be the same border the Obama administration has policed more relentlessly than the Bush administration did (see this and this). And this predictable piece of boilerplate came toward the end: “I will not surrender America’s role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today.”

Other more ominous passages are tailored to the Bolton-Kristol wing of the Republican Party in both general ways—America will never go soft, America must always be strong, yada yada—and specific ones. Lots of saber-rattling at Iran. Lots of fear-mongering about Islamists getting nuclear arsenals and China drubbing us in a vast naval battle in the Pacific. China, who, according to a sharp assessment of the speech’s specifics by the National Security Network, just built its first aircraft carrier (and it’s a bucket of bolts). The United States has 11.

China’s drubbing us, all right, but in other ways. But Romney’s speech all but ignores one reality: If he truly wants the 21st century to be an American century, he must start with economics, not military might. And unfortunately, the extremist economic proposals of the Republican Party will destroy the U.S. economy to the point that China won’t need even the one lousy aircraft carrier it has. Republicans speaking on foreign policy almost never make the link between strength abroad and strength at home—real strength, that is, by which I mean a reasonably equitable society and a broad middle class, growing thanks to sizeable public investments in infrastructure and higher education (you know, like the kind being made in . . . China).

The new century is not going to be an American century. Obama can’t say that of course, whether he thinks it or not. But most foreign-policy intellectuals who aren’t drunk on Mars-Venus rhetoric do think it, but since I’m not trolling for votes, I can say it. We will be (at least for awhile) the largest and most economically formidable of a small handful of competitor states. And if the EU becomes one country someday, we won’t even be that (the EU is already bigger measured as one unit in GDP terms). And some other day in the 21st century—especially if Republicans win elections and strip the state to the bone—China will surpass us in GDP too.

I realize nobody running for president can talk like this. But using rhetoric like “American century” is delusional, dishonest, and—because people with visions of American domination tend to be awfully trigger happy—potentially dangerous. But then again “delusional, dishonest, and potentially dangerous” is today’s GOP’s motto, isn’t it? Well, except for that “potentially.”’

The Pentagon procurement people will be thrilled with the speech. The NSN takedown asserts that if you really do the math, Romney would appear to be calling for growing the Pentagon by 14 percent a year. He wants a “robust” national missile defense system, which almost never passes field tests—but it sure makes certain people see dollar signs. He wants to speed the Navy’s ship-construction rate from the current nine a year to 15 a year (we have around 280 total ships right now). That’s more than the Navy itself (PDF) set as its goal in 2010. All this spending—combined with no taxes, or lower taxes, which is what the GOP really wants—means one thing: Goodbye Social Security and Medicare.

But the speech was its craftiest on the Israel question. There was the usual bluster we’ve come to expect from the right. But there was also this quick statement easily missed by most people: “I will reaffirm as a vital national interest Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.”

Who can argue with that? Colloquially, “Israel” and “the Jewish state” are the same thing, right? Except they’re actually not. Israel is a state with many Palestinian citizens. So what do those three little words actually mean? A lot. The United States has never officially recognized the Jewish state-ness of Israel. Presidents use the phrase—even Obama has—but we don’t officially call it a Jewish state.

This has ramifications for the peace process. Back in 2006, language under the “Quartet” negotiations had it that Palestine had to recognize Israel. But in a 2009 speech, Benjamin Netanyahu said the Palestinian Authority had to recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.” He knew—and still knows—this will never happen and Mahmoud Abbas affirmed this as much not long ago. Abbas said Palestine will recognize Israel—he was not of course speaking for Hamas—but not Israel as a Jewish state. The PA should recognize Israel as a Jewish state someday, but in final negotiations, when the Palestinians know they’re going to have their state. But not until then.

This was not a serious speech. It was rhetoric and buzz words and politics. You were expecting something else from a Republican?

So Romney is saying: Bibi, I got your back. No negotiations. Build those settlements. And of course he is saying to right-wing American Jewry: Write those checks.

This was not a serious speech. It was all rhetoric and buzz words and politics. You were expecting something else from a Republican? The party is sadly incapable of serious non-political thought. China is better at building aircraft carriers.