Mitt Romney's Third Attempt at a Foreign Policy Vision

If Romney wants to move to the middle on foreign policy, he'll have to endorse Obama's policies.

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

It is a safe bet that Mitt Romney’s national security speech today will feature a deep bow in the direction of Gen. George C. Marshall. It is an equally safe bet that Romney’s latest effort to tack back to the middle will fail to recognize the nuanced blend of diplomacy and strength that Marshall’s life represents.

Marshall, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, is remembered for his leadership of the U.S. Army during World War II, and for the Marshall Plan, the massive support for rebuilding post-war Europe that he championed during his time as Secretary of State. The 1945 mission he led to China, where he negotiated with both nationalist and communist forces in an unsuccessful effort to prevent a Chinese civil war, is less-known. So too was his concern for human welfare and dignity, not just threats and force, as the foundations of our security. As Marshall described the plan that came to bear his name:

Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.

All indications are that Romney will also seek to wrap himself in the national security mantle of Ronald Reagan. Reagan, too, liked to balance force and diplomacy, sending a birthday cake to Iran’s ayatollahs and making a historic trip to Moscow in 1988. Reagan dreamed of eliminating nuclear weapons--and came close to turning those dreams into policy at a subsequent summit with then-Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev, suggesting a vision of the world more complex and contemporary than the “peace through strength” slogan Romney has often borrowed from him.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Mitt Romney.]

Romney has had years of running for president, and three speeches this campaign alone, to unveil a complex vision of his own. His first, at the Citadel last fall, read like a serious list of questions from his committee of foreign policy advisers, not purporting to solve but at least mentioning tough issues from Pakistan to Mexico to cybersecurity. His second national security speech, at the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in August, his remarks in Israel and Poland this summer, and his campaign’s recent attacks on the administration over Middle East policy, have marked a retreat to generic critiques that even--or especially--his fellow conservatives have savaged for their lack of vision and substance.

Romney’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed promising “a new strategy for the Middle East” was greeted by one commentator, who served both Republican and Democratic presidents, as setting “a new bar for its vacuity, aimlessness, and lack of coherence.” A leading conservative thinker responded more briefly, quoting Romney’s writing: “We need ‘a new strategy toward the Middle East.’ Damn straight. What is it?”

[Check out editorial cartoons about the Middle East protests.]

Saying the administration should be strong, should love freedom, should support our allies--this is the equivalent of a candidate saying that he favors Americans having health care and the government collecting taxes. In fact, Americans do crave the kind of bipartisan, pragmatic, results-driven approach to national security that names like Marshall, Truman, Eisenhower evoke.

They are getting that approach from the Obama administration--killing Bin Laden and weakening al Qaeda, bringing wars to a close and defending U.S. interests without starting new ground conflicts, earning plaudits from allied governments and rebuilding global public opinion of the United States. In poll after poll, Americans continue to say that they like the president’s policies and support his leadership.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

So if Romney wants to seize the moderate mantle on national security, he would have to endorse key Obama policies--the pivot to Asia, the drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus on preserving the global financial system, the support for emerging democracies in the Middle East based on their deeds and not on their Islamist rhetoric. He would have to provide specific alternatives, new ideas, on the toughest issues that will bedevil the president for the next four years: What, concretely, would he do to support our Turkish ally and end killing in Syria, without sending U.S. troops into another Arab country? Given that military experts say a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities can set back but not end its nuclear program, what would Romney do that Obama has not done? How would Romney build better relations with new Arab governments and peoples, sustain our close alliance with Israel, and improve embassy security, while cutting funding for diplomacy by 10 percent or more, as his running mate Paul Ryan has proposed? What specifically is his vision for the future U.S. role in Afghanistan, and for Afghanistan itself?

American voters deserve answers. They also deserve an explanation of how Romney squares his new move to the middle with his previous description of his policies: “I think, by and large, you can just look at the things the president has done and do the opposite.” Romney has had two chances to let his own supporters and all Americans know what his concrete alternatives are. In fairy tales, the prince gets three chances. Romney may be a handsome prince, but the challenges the next commander-in-chief will face are no fairy tale.

  • Read Heather Hurlburt: 3 Ways Romney's National Security Talk Is About Politics.
  • Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly: an insider's guide to politics and policy.