Up until this point in the race for the White House, Mitt Romney has largely avoided providing a hard line stance on Middle East foreign policy. On Monday morning, Romney spoke at the Virginia Military Institute which served as a perfect backdrop for the presidential hopeful to define his global defense initiatives and his approach to the Middle East.
Romney spent the majority of his time speaking in detail on Obama’s shortcomings as Commander-in-Chief. He said of the president, “[His] policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East.” In a distinct play on Obama’s campaign brand, Romney went on to say that he shares the President’s hope for peace and friendship but that “hope is not a strategy.”
The candidate also detailed a long list of Middle Eastern countries and their place in the American strategic puzzle, from Libya to Syria to Israel and, of course, Iran. He hailed the US’ legacy of leadership abroad and mourned its waning global presence.
CNN reported that Romney’s foreign policy director, Alex Wong, said of the candidate’s stance on the Middle East, “Mitt Romney’s vision is to restore influence and to support our friends and allies to move the Middle East onto a path of greater liberty, greater stability, and greater prosperity,” Wong said. “It’s a restoration of a strategy that served us well for over 70 years.” He did not mention the Iranian hostage crisis, an Iranian Islamic Revolution, a slew of wars between Israel and its neighbors, and two Gulf wars, among other stressful events in the Middle East prior to Obama’s presidency.
Mr. Wong’s commentary is interesting, given Romney’s theme of the evening: VMI alumni, George Marshall.
Throughout his speech, Romney revered the late General Marshall as a model of leadership in foreign policy. Yet, given the amount of McCarthyism dooms-day rhetoric present in his narration, Romney’s focus on General Marshall seems out of place. McCarthy famously bashed the General as weak and supple to foreign interests in a 1951 speech. If America does not lead, said Romney, “the world will grow darker, for our friends and for us.”
In fact, McCarthy accused Marshall of “creat[ing] the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war,” in an eerie similarity to Romney’s conviction of Obama’s distance from Israel. However, Romney has been weary to mention his long-standing business and personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
After suffering through a slew of embarrassing missteps on foreign affairs, including a perceived insult to Palestinian culture and some misspoken comments about London’s preparedness for the Olympics earlier this year, Romney is seeking to change the perception that he is unknowledgeable in foreign affairs or insensitive to foreign cultures.
It will be difficult for Romney to dispel these perceptions, particularly as his statements at VMI appear dichotomous and simplistic, rather than addressing the great nuances of the region. He said, “In short, [the Middle Eastern struggle] is a struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair.”
Romney continued on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, stating, “Finally, I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the President has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations.” Earlier this summer, Romney was secretly taped commenting that the Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever in establishing peace, and that the pathway to peace is almost unthinkable to accomplish.”
Also, despite having previously mentioned that he would prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, Romney hardened his position and noted that he would ensure that Iran was unable to acquire nuclear capabilities, an important distinction from Obama’s current policy toward Iran.
Although Romney displays strong leadership and toughness on the rogue Iranian government, the New York Times reports that “Mr. Obama has imposed what Republicans from the Bush administration agree are the most severe sanctions in history, and combined them with cyberattacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.”
Obama will have the chance to respond to Romney’s remarks in person on October 22nd when the two candidates face off in a foreign policy-focused debate. Until then, Obama has already begun to offset Romney’s strong convictions via campaign ads.
In a campaign that has largely centered on issues of domestic economics, Romney’s speech is a welcomed refocus on foreign policy. The increased volatility and instability in the Middle East marks the beginning of a massively important era in Middle Eastern history, potentially as game changing as the independence movements of the 1950s and 1960s. It will be a grave mistake for voters to overlook a candidate’s ability to lead globally, particularly when the international landscape on the verge of change during the world’s interconnected apex.