Mitt Romney’s efforts to exploit the tragedy in Libya, which has led to the deaths of four American diplomats and soldiers, provides one more example of his lack of competence to be the commander in chief for American foreign policy.
For decades, American political leaders have put aside political considerations in times of crisis to support the national interest, even a president of the other party. Democratic and Republican leaders have drawn a line on criticism in times of troubles abroad and exercised restraint.
During the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan deferred any criticism of President Jimmy Carter after failure of the attempt to rescue the American hostages in Iran. John Kerry did the same during a 2004 development.
Romney’s recent remarks, saying that President Barack Obama sympathizes with Islamic radicals and has an indecisive Middle East policy, proved once again that he puts his foot in his mouth whenever he tries to demonstrate command of national security issues.
Many moderate conservatives faulted Romney’s remarks. David Brooks and Peggy Noonan, both respected conservative voices, expressed dismay that Romney made such unwarranted political comments during a crisis.
It is surprising that Romney even tries to discuss foreign policy at all. While the Republican party historically was thought of as more effective on national security, that is no longer the case after the colossal failures of George W. Bush in his reckless and costly invasion of Iraq and decisions on Afghanistan, plus John McCain’s choice of a running mate who knew where Russia was — but little else.
Obama’s success in developing a pragmatic foreign policy, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the restrained approach to Libya and other policies, has contributed to that shift and contradicts Romney’s charge that Obama’s policies are “weak” and “apologetic.”
Many other times, when attempting to comment on a vital national security issue, Romney has shown poor judgment and lack of familiarity with a host of complex challenges that face a president:
• In his address to the Republican convention, Romney failed to even mention Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history and one in which more than 2,000 American soldiers have died. His failure to pay tribute to their national service was inexcusable.
• Several months ago, Romney described Russia as the No. 1 strategic threat to the United States. Most national security experts would cite the threat of terrorist groups gaining access to weapons of mass destruction as the No. 1 threat in the post-Cold War period. China might be considered a threat in the long term — although economic interdependence between China and the U.S. argues for more of a neither-ally-nor-enemy, arms-length relationship.
• Russia, with its nuclear arsenal and oil-enriched economy, remains an unpredictable actor. Yet Romney opposes reasonable steps to reduce nuclear weapons – a singular achievement of his supposed mentor, Reagan.
* In his only foreign trip since winning the GOP nomination, Romney embarrassed himself in London when he tried to discuss foreign affairs. He insulted his hosts, questioned the value of America’s most reliable partner and stumbled his way home through Poland and Israel.
• On Iran, the most vexing challenge the U.S. faces today, Romney has shown himself to be irresponsible, talking “tough” and suggesting he would follow Israel’s lead, not American national interest, in dealing with the complex diplomatic challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
What is equally surprising about Romney’s gaffes is that he ventures into foreign policy as often as he does. Make no mistake. Obama is vulnerable in this election. He may have inherited an absolute mess from Bush and Dick Cheney, caused by their ruinous foreign policy, tax cuts and the 2008 economic meltdown. But Americans have short memories – and Romney’s campaign stands to gain by keeping the focus on a sluggish recovery.
One possible explanation for Romney’s inability to express himself coherently on national security is his choice of key advisers.
While Romney tries hard to make voters forget about George W. Bush, he has surrounded himself with Bush/Cheney lieutenants. Key advisers include Dan Senor, John Bolton and Elliott Abrams, all right-wing hawks who played major roles in the misguided militarization of foreign policy in the last administration.
The 21st century world is a very complex environment, one in which U.S. leadership is critical – and still credible despite Bush’s misuse of American power. With national security now very much an issue in this election, Mitt Romney has given voters little reason to trust his knowledge and judgment.
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and later worked on national security issues for the Department of State.