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Mitt Romney’s three debate performances in October 2012 have exposed his political cynicism, with the Republican candidate abandoning long-term positions in order to adopt more moderate ideas for the run-up to next month’s election. Prior to the debates, Romney’s domestic positions resembled President Ronald Reagan’s retreat from governance particularly on entitlements and such non-defense expenditures as education and energy. Like Reagan, Romney believes that government cannot provide the solution to any problem because government is the problem. Last night, Romney abandoned his strident and bellicose ideas on foreign policy in order to echo President Barack Obama’s policies on Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, and Syria. Romney’s obfuscation on domestic issues caught the president off-guard on October 3rd; his obfuscation on foreign policy issues allowed the president to expose the chicanery of the challenger.
There were no indications of the Romney who challenged the president’s withdrawal timeline for Afghanistan; would have left more troops in Iraq; considered Russia the nation’s most serious geostrategic threat; and took issue with the negotiation of the new START treaty that halved the numbers of warheads and launchers in US and Russian strategic inventories. Romney made no mention of the tragic events in Bengazi last month, presumably because he finally realizes that the intelligence community did a poor job of anticipating and then tracking the attack on the US Consulate.
There were issues that were not raised in the debate that would have provided stark contrasts between the president and the challenger. Unlike Obama, who ended the practice of torture and abuse, Romney justified the use of waterboarding and his advisors have defended the “dark side” of enhanced interrogation techniques. These advisors include Steve Bradbury, who headed the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel in the Bush administration, Cully Stimson, who occupied a sensitive position in the Pentagon in the Bush administration, and such lawyers as Lee Casey and David Rivkin. Romney’s foreign policy advisors also include many of the neoconservatives who counseled President Bush, including John Bolton, Dan Senor, and Richard Williamson.
Bradbury’s office “authorized” the torture tactics in 2002 that were okayed by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, National Security Advisor Rice, and Attorney General Ashcroft, among others. Unfortunately, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, recently gave a “distinguished service award” to Assistant US Attorney John Durham, who refused to hold accountable anyone in the CIA for its brutal interrogations of detainees at secret prisons or “black sites” in connection with the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and the destruction of the infamous torture tapes.
Romney avoided much of the Cold War language of the campaign season, but he still managed to be gratuitously aggressive toward China and Russia, who are important stakeholders in the diplomatic arena, and blithely ignorant of the multilateral diplomacy needed to coordinate effective sanctions measures against Iran and Syria. Obama was spot on when he charged that Romney had “imported his foreign policies from the eighties, his social policies from the fifties, and his economic policies from the twenties.
Romney’s shocking ignorance of the superiority and dominance of the Air Force and the Navy brought into question his support for an additional $2 trillion for the defense budget over the next ten years. Prior to the debate, Romney pledged to spend at least four percent of gross domestic product on defense, a bizarre way to plan for national defense. His support for reopening the production line for the F-22 fighter plane would cost an additional $120 billion over the next ten years. Romney supports a comprehensive national missile defense, which has never proven to be effective, as well as wider regional missile defenses in East Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia, which will contribute to greater regional disarray.
In an effort to establish credibility on key regional issues, Romney merely unveiled substantive ignorance. His allegation that Iran viewed Syria as an outlet to the sea ignored the 1,500 miles of coastline that Iran controls on the Persian Gulf. His call for an end to Iranian oil imports into the United States ignored the ban on such imports that was put in place by President Reagan twenty-five years ago. His call for indicting Iran’s Prime Minister Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a war criminal was no more than an off-the-wall sound bite.
Over the past four years, President Obama has demonstrated an awareness of the limits on the use of force. The withdrawal from Iraq; the start of a withdrawal from Afghanistan; the nuanced involvement in Libya; and the hesitation on involvement in Syria reflects the war weariness of the country, the country’s budgetary problems, and the constraints of force. Until Monday night’s debate, Romney appeared to take a page out of the John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address (“We will pay any price and bear any burden.”), which led the country into Vietnam. Despite his conciliatory debate language, there is no reason to expect Romney to ameliorate his positions on national security, let alone his economic and social policies.
Melvin A. Goodman is a former CIA senior analyst and the author of the forthcoming “National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism” (City Lights Publishers, January 2013).