David Frum

08.29.12

Romney: Too Cheap For War

Tonight, we'll hear from John McCain and Condoleezza Rice, and they'll speak about American exceptionalism. But I think George Packer and Andrew Sullivan err when they predict an aggressive foreign policy from a Romney administration. I'll venture the opposite prediction: Romney's foreign policy will be even more cautious than Barack Obama's. Here's why:

If we've learned anything from this campaign, it is the supreme overarching importance to Republicans of tax reduction. The current proposal is to make permanent the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003, and then go further with an additional cut to a maximum top rate of 28%.

Of course, George W. Bush cut taxes while mounting a very aggressive foreign policy. But here's the difference: over the past five years, the Republicans voting base of older voters has suddenly become acutely conscious that today's deficit implies tomorrow's tax increase. (Robert Barro, collect your Nobel Prize.) Mitt Romney seems to have internalized that argument too. And if your top priority is reducing debt so as to obviate the tax threat - well, the sheer daunting cost of foreign policy entanglements will temper your adventurism.

It will temper in particular your enthusiasm for an Iran adventure. An Iran war will be a big war. The contingency plans for an Iran war include the possibility of a breakdown of civil order in Iran and the deployment of foreign peacekeepers. I know this is utterly hypothetical. But imagine the reaction around the briefing table in a Romney Situation Room when the generals introduce such a topic - and a Romney OMB chair unveils the cost. The very fact that the Bush administration low-balled the cost of Iraq will bias a Romney administration to worry about high-cost scenarios.

The political reaction to attempted budget cuts in 2013 -and then (continuing the hypothetical) to likely Democratic gains in Congress in 2014 - together will strain even a peacetime military budget. George W. Bush was willing to sacrifice his domestic agenda after 9/11 because once he had achieved No Child Left Behind and his tax cut, he had largely completed it. But Mitt Romney won't feel that way in 2013. He'll have a lot he wishes to do - and be very nervous of anything that compromises his scope to do it.