Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continues to struggle to differentiate himself substantively from President Barack Obama on foreign policy. Given Gov. Romney’s over-the-top rhetorical charges of “weakness,” “appeasement,” and “apologizing for America,” one would expect him to offer a strong contrast to President Obama on national security issues, including Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran. By and large, however, Gov. Romney consistently fails to offer a clear and substantive alternative to the president’s foreign policy.
Last week’s debate not only exposed Gov. Romney’s amateurish lack of substance on foreign policy but also his apparent belief that rhetoric is policy. In that debate, Gov. Romney offered a mildly more aggressive version of President Obama’s Syria policy and embraced the president’s 2014 goal for drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan. On Iran, where he has persistently been unable to clearly differentiate himself on substantive policy terms, Gov. Romney was reduced to claiming that he would somehow impose tighter sanctions on Tehran. Only when it came to the defense budget did it seem that Gov. Romney wanted to draw clear differences with the president.
Indeed, Gov. Romney’s main difference with President Obama when it comes to foreign policy appears to be rhetorical. As with his economic policies, Gov. Romney hasn’t provided the substance to match his far-reaching rhetorical charges. But this lack of substance isn’t a bug—it’s the core feature of Gov. Romney’s foreign policy approach, founded on a magical belief in his own personal ability to project “strength” in foreign policy without lifting a finger.
On Russia, for example, Gov. Romney apparently believes that simply showing “backbone and courage” will serve to “discourage aggressive or expansionist behavior on the part of Russia and encourage democratic political and economic reform.” American allies, he says, will see this behavior as “loyalty.” According to this logic, America’s adversaries will cower and allies will fall in line because they know he has an ineffable quality of “strength.”
Gov. Romney’s advisers have previewed this logic during the campaign. After the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, the Romney campaign’s chief foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson essentially claimed that the attack wouldn’t have happened if his candidate were president. His logic? “There’s not a sense of American resolve.”
Gov. Romney embraces this magical logic. What divides Gov. Romney’s foreign policy from the president’s, in Romney’s mind, aren’t substantive differences but intangible qualities. This dynamic was made clear in last week’s foreign policy debate, where Gov. Romney flat-out stated that the main difference between his approach to Iran’s nuclear program and President Obama’s was that he would “show strength from the very beginning.”
This statement stands in contrast with what Gov. Romney says specifically about Iran. Despite multiple opportunities to distinguish his approach from President Obama’s in op-eds and speeches, Gov. Romney fails time after time to offer concrete alternatives to current policy that match his heated rhetoric. In fact, most of his policy recommendations have already been undertaken by the Obama administration.
For Gov. Romney, this sort of magical thinking—defined in part as the “belief that one can bring about a circumstance or event by thinking about it or wishing for it” or “treating your own thoughts as if they could have a physical influence on the world”—isn’t a substitute for foreign policy. It is his foreign policy.
What’s more, this foreign policy approach mirrors the one conservatives falsely accused President Obama of taking. Take the recent claim in a Wall Street Journal editorial that President Obama “bet so much on the power of his own charisma to change the world.” This dynamic, however, is precisely what Gov. Romney’s main foreign policy argument boils down to—that his personality make the difference. If this isn’t a bet on the power of a candidate’s personal charisma to change the world, then it would be hard to determine what is.
But magical thinking is par for the course for Gov. Romney. The former Massachusetts governor has yet to produce tax or jobs proposals that either add up or base their claims on actual evidence. As the columnist Paul Krugman has noted, Gov. Romney’s economic plan “seems to be to foster economic recovery through magic, inspiring business confidence through his personal awesomeness.” The same holds true for foreign policy: Gov. Romney’s plan seems to be to foster grand changes in the international environment that wildly favor the United States simply through his own personal strength and resolve.
Such a foreign policy is more appropriate for a schoolyard bully than for the leader of the world’s only superpower.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst at American Progress, where he specializes in the Middle East, military affairs, and U.S. national security policy.