IN THE middle of his much-anticipated foreign policy speech last week, Mitt Romney acknowledged that the threats to the United States have changed since his “classic baby boomer’’ childhood. “Today, our world is far more chaotic,’’ he declared. But the surprise — and a significant one in a national mood that has turned more skeptical of increased defense spending — was that Romney’s prescription for today’s ills is the same as for the Cold War: More weapons systems, at a time when bipartisan leaders in Congress are finally moving to rein in some Pentagon excesses; an expansion of the Navy, the area of greatest bipartisan consensus about cuts; and a re-assertion of the Cold War principle that a bloated arsenal will, in itself, deter attacks.
Most of the speech unfolded as though the last 10 years never happened. Romney offered few strategic insights beyond an abiding faith in a giant military.
That, too, is surprising because Romney, in his second run for the presidency, has been neither rash nor simplistic; he’s sought to preserve his status as default front-runner by stressing consensus positions. When he shows passion, it’s usually to reinforce broadly popular conservative constituencies. Thus, it was hardly a surprise that his foreign-policy speech at The Citadel, billed as a rigorous grappling with the issues, included a long tribute to the military history of South Carolina, home to a crucial early primary; made three references to the need for tighter kinship with Israel, with no mention either of the Palestinians or a peace agreement; and counted Cuba among the “determined, powerful forces that may threaten freedom.’’
But pandering doesn’t account for his call for a major buildup - not now, when even many Republicans want greater belt-tightening at the Pentagon. In his 59-point plan for the economy, which drew on his personal experience in the venture-capital and private-equity worlds, Romney offered a thorough blueprint sprinkled with some innovative ideas. In contrast, his foreign-policy speech has to be considered a disappointment, a concession to some of the same hawks - Robert Kagan, Cofer Black, Michael Hayden - who advised the similarly inexperienced George W. Bush.
Meanwhile, one of Romney’s rivals, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, offered his own foreign policy ideas on Monday in New Hampshire. As a two-time US ambassador, Huntsman’s grounded views attested to the importance of personal expertise. He did not call for Pentagon spending hikes, noting that the United States already outspends all other nations combined. And he recognized that the extent of America’s leadership isn’t measured by the size of the arsenal but the level of its engagement with the world.
Huntsman’s call for far deeper economic ties with other nations, as a means for influencing their policies in human rights and other areas, was thoughtful and tightly reasoned - and a credible critique of President Obama’s still-evolving foreign policy.
Huntsman criticized Obama for keeping too many troops in Afghanistan, and pledged to end the nation-building mission there. Whether one agrees or not, Huntsman’s views implicitly acknowledge the need for ad hoc responses to varying threats, with America’s commitment to open markets and free expression as a common thread. It’s a wiser, more practical approach than Romney’s.