Mitt Romney went to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention yesterday to deliver what his campaign termed a “major foreign policy address.” In a campaign that has been largely focused on domestic economic issues, Romney’s speech was “major” in comparison to the silence on the issue that preceded it. But, it was not “major” in the sense of introducing any actual guide to how he would conduct foreign policy if he were to be elected in November. Like the tax returns he refuses to release, Romney is not showing his policy cards in this area.
Most of the speech was dedicated to a reiteration of American exceptionalism. Now, I happen to think America is exceptional in many ways. But, people who think America is exceptional can, in foreign policy matters, easily slide into hubris of the kind all Americans witnessed when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld predicted that the war in Iraq would cost about $50 billion and essentially be over in six months. Ten years and roughly a trillion dollars later, we have finally extricated our military from the quagmire Rumsfeld’s hubris got us into.
Romney at least comes by his sense of American exceptionalism with the honesty of his faith. I do not think most questions about Romney’s Mormon faith are pertinent, certainly that the nineteenth century practice of polygamy should be off-limits. But, I am disturbed by the ways that Mormonism adopted ideas about American exceptionalism in their crudest forms. For Mormons, American chauvinism is, if anything, even more extreme than that found among conservative evangelicals ever since the Rev. Jerry Falwell made being “pro-American” one of the four pillars of his Moral Majority. Joseph Smith not only believed that Garden of Eden was located within the U.S., and that the Second Coming would take place here as well, but he believed the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired. As recently as 1969, the leadership of the LDS Church reaffirmed this belief, stating, “we believe that the Constitution of the United States was divinely inspired, that it was produced by ‘wise men’ whom God raised up for this ‘very purpose,’ and that the principles embodied in the Constitution are so fundamental and important that, if possible, they should be extended ‘for the rights and protection’ of all mankind.” I will leave it to religious scholars to plumb the depths of these sentiments, but I confess that they worry me, especially because Romney seems to have surrounded himself with neo-con foreign policy advisors left over from the Bush administration. The planting of neo-con realpolitik in the fertile soil of real faith strikes me as likely to produce many violent weeds.
On the other hand, Romney seemed incapable of distinguishing his policies, as opposed to his rhetoric, from anything being undertaken by President Obama. Here, let me quote at some length a central portion of Romney’s speech:
I agree that the threat of a nuclear Iran is a severe one and likely the greatest threat to national security today. But, I can’t spot in Romney’s words any particular point on which he differs from the President. Can you? The President is enforcing sanctions and engaged in negotiations for full and unhindered access for inspections, even though those negotiations have not yielded any results – how would Mr. Romney negotiate differently? The President has quite unequivocally refused to take the military option off the table. In another part of the speech, Romney criticized the administration for not standing up in support of the pro-democracy protesters in Iran. There is some question whether those protesters wanted American statements of support and whether such statements might not have been a propaganda god-send to the regime. That is a debate worth having. Attributing the Obama administration’s silence at that time to anything but calculation, whether that calculation was right or wrong, seems to me to be without warrant.
Similarly, on the subject of Afghanistan, Romney was strong in his criticism of the President’s decisions, until, one paragraph later, he said he would stick to the timetable the administration has set out.
So, what did we learn from this “major” speech? Next to nothing. We learned that Mr. Romney thinks America is exceptional. Mr. Obama’s residency in the White House proved that point for many of us. Mr. Romney thinks Iran is dangerous. Who doesn’t? Mr. Romney says he will never apologize for America. Mr. Obama never has. What we learned yesterday was that Mr. Romney may give his speechwriters greater latitude than Obama’s, but not the Pentagon. Some difference.