To reject Mitt Romney as a presidential candidate solely on the basis of his faith is to be in contempt of the First Amendment. To do so for the content of his foreign policy address last week, however, is perfectly acceptable.
The venue for the speech provided the first clue that Romney and the men advising him on international affairs, largely neoconservative retreads, either cannot or will not adjust to the New Normal. From a dais at The Citadel, a South Carolina military academy, he surrounded himself with U.S. troops as political props, a stage device that dates back to the Reagan era, and his message was a synoptic translation from The Gospel of Gipper: the world craves American leadership, the power of which is directly proportional to the size of its military budget. Therefore, to cut defense spending is to provoke the animal spirits of American exceptionalism.
As this column has argued in the past, the myth of America as the indispensable nation dwells almost exclusively in the minds of Beltway militarists. Romney's declaration that the United States has "a unique destiny and role in the world" may go down well for those in the empire business—the Pentagon, of course, but also civilian defense contractors and legislators angling for weapons assembly plants in their districts—but it means next to nothing elsewhere on the planet he craves to lead. With recalcitrant Republicans holding the economy hostage with their opposition to a second stimulus package, American democracy is looking more like something to avoid than to emulate. (For a detailed and compelling argument in favor of massive public works spending and mortgage debt restructuring as a means of recovery, see this study recently issued by the New America Foundation.) As the satirical website The Onion pointed out in the aftermath of Steve Jobs's death, the Apple founder and visionary seemed to be the last prominent American who knew what he was trying to do.
Expeditionary power—the ability, unique to the United States, to project armed force anywhere in the world—is both awesome and costly, and its returns have been diminishing since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet here was Romney vowing to increase defense spending, not reduce it, which budget planners on both sides of the aisle understand is no longer avoidable. Slamming President Obama's proposed defense spending cuts, he called for growth in naval power from nine ships per year to 15, which presumably would be part of an overall increase in a Pentagon budget that already exceeds what the rest of the world spends on national defense. This at a time when America's security-related expenditures account for nearly a quarter of the national budget, which when added to the costs of entitlement programs is equal to some two-thirds of all federal outlays. With the United States facing what could be a decade of economic dissolution, try telling jobless Americans they should bankroll a larger naval fleet for the sake of menacing China, Washington's largest creditor.
Not content with highlighting Beijing as an emerging "peer competitor," Romney pieced together a montage of alleged threats—North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela—that bordered on geopolitical parody for anyone who has actually worked in those blighted countries. Even his throaty warnings about radical Islam failed to impress, as the jihadi agenda has been repudiated by popular demands for liberal democracy throughout the Arab world. What is left of Al Qaeda and its franchisees has been effectively contained by Obama's stepped-up drone attacks and law enforcement operations.
Reading the text of Romney's address, I couldn't help but compare the Republican Party he represents, with its intoxicated embrace of tax cuts, guns, Israel, and a particularly rueful and exclusivist Almighty, with the sober-minded one led by his father, a secular moderate. It was George Romney who dismissed the notion of American exceptionalism as "nothing but a political banner to cover up greed." Asked about his position on the war in Vietnam while campaigning for president in 1968, Romney answered honestly and plaintively that during a fact-finding tour there he received "the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get [by] not only the generals but also the diplomatic corps." After studying the history of Indochina on his own, free of the professional biases and intrigues of both soldier and diplomat, Romney declared, "I no longer believe it was necessary for us to get involved in South Vietnam."
Though history proved Romney right, his GOP rival, a former vice president and California congressman, spun his remarks as defeatist and rode them all the way to the White House. Politically at least, that makes Mitt Romney more an heir to the demagogue Richard Nixon than he is to his own father, who distinguished himself as a politician too honest and restrained to be president.