Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour



Romney’s Proposed Foreign Policy: Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle

“I believe that if America does not lead, others will—others who do not share our interests and our values—and the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us. America’s security and the cause of freedom cannot afford four more years like the last four years.” – Mitt Romney

Stuck in a Cold War, Ozzie and Harriet time warp, Mitt Romney is living in a black and white dream world where America’s foes are easily identifiable and manageable, military solutions are preferred and effective, and America simply cracks a whip and everyone else snaps to attention. This was in clear evidence at yesterday’s VMI speech, in which Romney characterized America as a weak and feckless power under President Obama, and where every enduring high profile conflict in the world has a simple solution and would simply disappear as he waves a magic wand as president.

The VMI speech was a chest-beating exercise, designed to establish some foreign policy credentials (since he has none), convince any undecided voters who might be listening that Romney is a patriot who is aware that America has enemies throughout the world, and demonstrate that he will stand up to them in a George W. Bush way. We saw how well that worked in Iraq; Romney proposes to do much the same thing in Syria.

Among the highlights of his speech were his proposal to arm the Syrian opposition with heavy weapons, suggesting that the Obama administration has been “sitting on the sidelines” for too long, not taking decisive action.

Doing so would be a mistake for several reasons, however, and his failure to focus on the risks involved in escalating American involvement in the conflict is evidence of Romney’s apparent inability to grasp the larger consequences at issue, as well as the likelihood of mission failure.

It seems clear that Mr. Romney’s foreign policy advisors do not grasp just what is at stake in Syria or have an appreciation for the limitations of American military power in this multi-polar world. Perhaps they are themselves stuck in a neo-con time warp.

Thrusting the US into the Syrian conflict militarily is designed to fail because: We do not know who the Syrian opposition really is, but we do know it contains radical elements and members of Al Qaeda, and arming the opposition would by definition also be arming them. Doing so would dramatically escalate the conflict and turn it into the regional conflict so many fear, as Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia would also participate – either with money, men, or materiel. The outcome is far from certain, but the likelihood that a radical government would take over is high, and perhaps be allied with Iran. The U.S. populace have no desire to become embroiled in yet another conflict in the Middle East. There is unlikely to be an effective exit strategy.

So, in a Romney world, there is to be little limitation to the use of military power – either in application or in terms of the money needed to do so. By proposing to increase military spending by $2 trillion, he is in essence saying military muscle flexing will be the new American credo – whether in Syria or Iran. The same is true with respect to ‘diplomacy’: ‘Breast beating’ is also proving to be his credo – as he has demonstrated by taunting China and Russia with his words. Perhaps Mr. Romney should change his name to “Tarzan: Lord of the Jungle,” for that appears to be what he wishes to become.

This is unlikely to be an effective approach, for several reasons. First, the only country that still seems to think the American adventure in Iraq was successful is America. Second, an open hand is much more effective than a clenched fist – in almost every instance. Third, the Middle East and North Africa have already largely rejected the idea that dollars will buy influence (and in any event, Mr. Romney has already said that under his administration, countries will have to earn the right to foreign aid from America). Fourth, even Dubya had to work within the confines of the international legal system. Mr. Romney will be able to do little outside those confines – so while it all sounds good (to some) on paper, applying this new world of Tarzan will prove to be difficult for Mr. Romney.

In the end, Mr. Romney is unlikely to achieve much more, much differently than President Obama, and much of what he said in his speech is in reality more or less what Obama has already done or is currently doing. Whether “vigorously pursuing the terrorists who attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi” or “urging the new government in Egypt to represent all Egyptians” or “pursuing a successful transition to Afghan security forces in 2014” – expect more of the same in many areas if Mr. Romney were to become president.

The speech serves only to demonstrate that Mr. Romney is the ultimate political chameleon, who has attempted to pivot to what he considers to be the political center in the last month of the presidential election. It remains to be seen whether a President Romney will do even half the things he says he will do – in part because his position is likely to change if he were to get into office (being such a chameleon), and because he will find that domestic and international political forces will display their own influence in his decision making process. Don’t be surprised if forces outside his control force him to remain in the political middle.