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Mitt Romney’s provocative remarks in Jerusalem this week on Palestine and Iran have focused attention on how he thinks about American foreign policy generally. Beyond the immediate controversy, there is fresh reason to puzzle as to who exactly the Republican presidential nominee is and who are the people he relies on for advice. For his reputation in the United States as a reserved, scripted candidate who strives to avoid impetuous comments is now contradicted by radical pronouncements that ran against the grain of both his cultivated public persona and the established norm that you limit criticism of a incumbent president when speaking abroad.
Romney pledged that he would give the Israeli government of Bibi Netanyahu carte blanche to attack Iran when they decide it necessary in the face of Washington’s assiduous efforts to instill restraint and to leave open its response to a military strike. On Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Obama administration has refused to accord them blanket approval. Rather, it affirms that the final status of the settlements can only be resolved as part of a mutually agreed peace deal negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians. Yet Romney declared that the settlement issue was a topic to be discussed only between the United States and Israel themselves behind closed doors. He then added insult to injury by offending the Palestinians by his ill-informed comparison of standards of living in Palestine and Israel that stressed some sort of cultural liability of the former while ignoring the Israeli Occupation. To complete this trio of contentious statements, Romney announced his intention to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – thereby putting the official American imprimatur on the annexation of the city, a step that previous American presidents have steered clear of.
Partisan politics explain much of Romney’s motivations and intentions. He is obsessed with gaining the White House – at almost any cost. Israel is a hot button issue for a slice of American voters. That includes not only Jewish Americans but also the Evangelical Right whose devotion to the state of Israel derives from their literal reading of the Book of Revelations. There it is foretold that a sign of Armageddon’s approach is the Hebrews’ re-gathering in the Holy Land where the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will give them another chance at Redemption. Hence, the Christian fundamentalists’ uncritical fervor in support of Israel – even though Israeli Jews who welcome their political backing are in no hurry to redeem themselves.
The issue’s electoral significance can be exaggerated. The overwhelming majority of those Christian fundamentalists who fall into this category would never vote for Barack Obama whatever his attitude toward Israel. Indeed, the president’s oft demonstrated support for Israel “right-or-wrong” matches that of any predecessor in the White House. Jewish voters, for their part, provide consistently large majorities for the Democrats. While a Zionist element has freely chastised Obama for imagined shortcomings vis a vis Israel, there is no evidence that the campaign to peel away habitual Democratic supporters by accusing him of only fulsome support for Israel will succeed. The day after Romney’s Jerusalem talk, Ehud Barak publicly said that he and Israel had nothing to complain about in regard to the Obama White House, thereby effectively neutralizing the Republican challenger’s strategy. However, American elections these days do not turn solely, or perhaps even mainly, on issues. Money has become the essential ingredient in campaigns that depend on donors for the dollars that pay for an organization and the interminable advertising. It is the all purpose lubricant. The competition for donations is almost as keen as the competition for votes – especially so in the wake of the Supreme Court’s “United” decision which removed any restriction on giving by corporations and Political Action Committees. So Jewish donors were in fact the main target audience for Romney in what he said about Iran as well as Palestine. The prominent presence of Mr. Sheldon Adelman, the casino billionaire from Las Vegas who has been bank rolling an anti-Obama movement, was emblematic.
There is another, reinforcing element that is pushing Romney in the direction of an ultra-hard line on Middle east issues. His principal foreign policy advisers are drawn from the neo-conservatives and aggressive nationalists who drove the Bush administration when it launched the war in Iraq, rejected overtures from Tehran and hyped an unrelenting “war on terrorism” – real or imagined. Most active behind the scenes is John Bolton, the controversial former Ambassador to the United Nations whose single minded passion for a muscular American foreign policy has placed him at the fringe of the United States’ foreign affairs establishment. Some see his welcoming embrace by Mitt Romney as a gesture toward the foreign policy ultras who today dominate the Republican Party. This would make sense during the primary season. The logical tendency, though, is to moderate views and shed militant advisers as a candidate moves into the general election where the voters are more numerous and diverse. Romney has not done that – as his remarks in Israel attest.
There is reason to think that Romney is instinctively drawn toward a truly hawkish, and somewhat simplistic, worldview. Word and deed over the past two years of non-stop electioneering conform to that assessment. His themes are the imperative to build American power, to keep the outsized military budget intact, to assert strong American leadership among the country’s closest allies who, in turn, should act as a phalanx projecting Western influence around the world. He sounded these ideas in strident tones in a much publicized address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars just last week. Romney, in a sense, operates within a mental framework whose features are unchanged from the Cold War days when it was formed. There is little nuance, no regard for international institutions or any form of multilateralism, and a generally ‘we vs them” attitude – presented in moralistic terms. Of course, the Soviet Union is gone. The logical substitute as an organizing element is Islamic terrorism. The problem there is that it has become difficult to portray Obama as weak on terrorism after he took Osama bin-Laden’s scalp. Instead, Romney emphasized the threat to American dominance posed by China; he conjured up images of a resurgent Russia, and painted in stark colors the menace supposedly presented by a fanatical, aggressive and soon to be nuclear armed Iran.
A cautionary note is in order. Romney has demonstrated that he is not a man of fixed views and immutable policy positions. If he does manage to gain the presidency, his cautious temperament and sensitivity to the political winds could lead to decisions and actions rather less belligerent than his recent blustering rhetoric suggests.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.