This, apparently, is the sum total of Mitt Romney's case for being better at foreign policy than Barack Obama: He's better at rattling sabers than the president is. And while in many ways that means the substance of Romney's would-be policy really isn't that different from Obama's, the stylistic differences are dangerous. To put it bluntly, the kind of swaggering, blustering foreign policy Romney and his neocon advisers favor plays right into the hands of the people who do things like attack and kill U.S. diplomats.
The domestic/political portion of this fight started Tuesday when the Romney campaign issued a statement condemning the Obama administration for what Team Romney characterized as sympathizing with the terrorists who had killed an American consulate worker in Benghazi (the full facts of four Americans, including the ambassador, having been killed were at that point still unknown). That the statement in question was issued before the deadly attacks and without the administration's clearance proved of little interest to Romney and his advisers who then doubled down even in the face of the inconvenient facts as well as widespread criticism for politicizing a foreign crisis.
Here's where things stood by week's end: Romney had resorted to justifying his attacks on the administration by pointing out that the White House had repudiated the offending statement and was, finally, reduced to chastising the Cairo embassy for not updating its Web site fast enough. And while he and his allies had characterized the statement, which condemned an anti-Muslim online video, as an apology for American values, he had … condemned the anti-Muslim online video. Finally, in an interview broadcast Friday morning, Romney told ABC News that he had the same "red line" as Obama in regards to Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon.
What's left in terms of how Romney would conduct foreign policy differently? Romney would talk loudly while brandishing a big stick. Marc Ambinder notes that he seems to subscribe to the theory of "provocative weakness"—that anything less than a robustly muscular U.S. global posture invites very bad things. So under a Romney administration, an adviser to the candidate opined to the Washington Post, there would be no attacks on American embassies or diplomats for fear of American toughness.
"There's a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you'd be in a different situation," Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, said in an interview. "For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we've had an American ambassador assassinated."
Williamson added, "In Egypt and Libya and Yemen, again demonstrations — the respect for America has gone down, there's not a sense of American resolve and we can't even protect sovereign American property."
That is a compelling story, if only because it's so fantastical. Let's unpack it: Disgruntled Muslims wouldn't take to the streets if Romney were president because they'd be cowed by American resolve? How does that work? They'd be worried that if they demonstrated President Romney would give them all a stern talking to? Or that he'd send in SEAL Team Six to quiet them down?
The "provocative weakness" theory falls apart in the face of nonstate actors on the world stage, people for whom American force is less a threat than a recruiting tool. The fact of the matter is that assuming the people who killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his three colleagues were al Qaeda allies or sympathizers (or al Qaeda itself), they didn't attack the U.S. embassy because they didn't fear a U.S. response; they crave a U.S. response, preferably of the ham handed, military variety to bolster their recruiting and inflame the kind of anti-American sentiment that is so clearly present in the Muslim world today.
"[Osama] bin Laden, when he was alive, was very consciously aware that encouraging the United States to lead with its chin—to lead with a military response to everything—would bog us down," says Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network. "And that was very much part of bin Laden's vision and you could see that on jihadi chat boards and so on."
And it's worth noting that the "provocative weakness" theory hasn't held up in the real world either. As Kevin Drum writes today :
At one level, of course, this is just dumb campaign bravado. Your guy is weak and vacillating and our enemies laugh at him. My guy is strong and resolute and our enemies fear him. But it's also nonsense. Reagan's resolve didn't stop Lebanese militants from bombing a Marine barracks in Beirut. Bush Sr.'s resolve didn't stop Saddam Hussein from invading Kuwait. Bush Jr.'s resolve didn't stop al-Qaeda from destroying the World Trade Center and killing 3,000 Americans.
In that respect, anyway, Romney's foreign policy is much like his domestic policy: Light on details but apparently a retread of the same stuff that didn't work out so well the first couple of times we tried them.