Evan Moore is a policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative
On the heels of last week's presidential debate on domestic issues in Denver, former Gov. Mitt Romney gave a major foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday. Many conservatives have urged the governor to talk more about international relations in his campaign. The need to demonstrate how Romney's foreign policy would differ from President Barack Obama's only intensified after the tragic killings in Benghazi on September 11.
The Arab Spring
Romney began his speech by emphasizing the importance of standing with the Arab Spring protestors, calling their efforts a "struggle between liberty and tyranny, justice and oppression, hope and despair." He then lamented that "we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us." His commitment to ensuring that Libya's and Egypt's nascent governments evolve into representative democracies is laudable in the wake of calls by reactionary lawmakers to cut off U.S. foreign assistance after the events of Sept. 11, 2012.
The governor also pledged to "roll back President Obama's deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense." Obama's latest annual budget will cut defense spending by $487 billion over the next decade. What's worse, the U.S. military still faces the looming threat of $500 billion in 10-year sequestration cuts that will start in January 2013. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned that sequestration will "truly devastate our national defense." Romney is right to recognize that current levels of defense spending represent a floor of what is needed to tackle the threats of the 21st century, not a ceiling. His campaign's call for a 350-ship Navy is a critical step towards that end.
The governor's proposals on reforming foreign aid and advancing free trade are likewise praiseworthy and welcome. If elected, he will likely have to take bolder steps than some of the measures outlined Monday.
Iran may be much closer to nuclear weapons-making capability than Romney realizes, and he could be forced to use military action early in his administration to thwart Tehran's progress. As the Bipartisan Policy Center reports, Iran has several bombs-worth of low enriched uranium and is now producing larger quantities of uranium enriched up to 20 percent. Because each percentage point of enrichment is easier than the last, 20 percent enriched uranium represents roughly 80 percent of the effort needed to produce weapons-grade nuclear material. The time needed for Iran to "breakout" of international inspections and build a nuclear explosive is steadily diminishing. If Romney is serious about making sure that Iran does not cross the red line of "nuclear weapons capability," then he should unequivocally make clear his commitment to enforcing that red line—by force, if necessary.
Romney drew a stark contrast to the president's Afghan policy by rejecting a "politically-timed retreat," in favor of conditions-based changes to U.S. troops. However, it is critical that Romney explicitly commit to maintaining current troop levels in Afghanistan for as long as U.S. commanders on the ground recommend. When Afghanistan assumes "lead responsibility" for its security, he should pledge his willingness to keep a robust follow-on force, if the Afghan people request it.
In addition, Romney should insist on maintaining—or increasing—the current size of the Afghan National Security Forces. The Obama administration may seek not only to reduce the Afghan National Security Forces' funding in 2015, but also slash the size of the military and police from its present 352,000 troops and police to 230,000. As former Army Vice Chief of Staff General Jack Keane warned, this proposal "makes no sense," and will undermine all of the coalition's efforts to defeat the Taliban insurgency.
Romney should be cheered for his willingness to seek out rebel groups that the United States can support and "ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets." As the uprising against the Assad regime continues, 30,000 Syrians have been killed, the armed opposition is in danger of becoming radicalized, and Syria's neighbors are facing a tidal wave of refugees. Romney should consider working with our allies in the region to establish safe zones within Syrian territory, with the aim of protecting civilians and creating space for opposition groups to truly organize.
"Our friends and allies across the globe do not want less American leadership," Romney said. "They want more." He would be wise to continue this message of a robust, principled U.S. role in the world through Election Day. The world that faces the next president will require the United States to be willing to use all aspects of its national power. If Romney wants to ensure that the 21st century is an American century, he should prepare the nation for the hard work that must be done.