Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Commentary on Mitt Romney’s Speech to the VFW (7/24/2012)

The first thing that jumps out at me is Romney’s attempt to pin the looming defense cuts to the Pentagon, a process known as sequestration, on President Obama. He referred to “President Obama’s massive defense cuts”, “the President’s radical cuts in the military” and says that “the President has chosen this moment for wholesale reductions in the nation’s military capacity.” I think it’s pretty clear that all three statements are attempting to pin the cuts, and the blame, on Obama.

The problem is, they’re not Obama’s cuts—or at the very least, responsibility falls on both houses of Congress as well as the President. The cuts are a result of Congress’s failure to produce a bill that would cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget, and will (or may) be enacted as a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011. They are not a uniquely Obama policy, nor does he (or anyone else, really) actually want them to be enacted. Their inclusion was as an incentive to get other cuts passed, not as anything that was actually supposed to pass. Romney’s presentation of them as belonging solely to Obama is, at best, misleading.

Romney also lambasted Obama for pulling missile interceptors and a radar system out of Poland and the Czech Republic respectively, calling it the “sudden abandonment of friends” in both countries. And while the policy change was reportedly sudden to both countries, it was also welcome in both; Der Spiegel reported that a majority of Poles opposed the shield, while the Reno Gazette-Journal (Romney’s speech was in Reno) noted that the radar system was unpopular in the Czech Republic and was unlikely to get the Czech parliament’s approval for placement. (In fairness, Lech Walesa lambasted the U.S. for giving up on the program.) And while Romney portrays the dropping of the shield as a concession to the Russian government, the justification for the system’s construction was not to defend against Russia—ten interceptors in Poland wouldn’t do much good against the Russian arsenal—but to block missiles from Iran. It’s entirely possible that the change was in part to placate the Russians, who hated the idea of the program—although the administration never painted it as such—but a 2009 defense review of the program noted that the Iranians were concentrating on different types of missiles than the ones the shield was supposed to block. That was the reason given for the "policy reset".

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee mentioned Hugo Chavez as “inviting Hezbollah into our hemisphere”, but there’s little evidence that Hezbollah has any activity in the Americas beyond some fundraising. And while the administration’s failure to speak out publicly in favor of the Green Revolutionaries in Iran seems to me like a legitimate black mark, as the National Catholic Reporter points out, it’s entirely possible that an American endorsement of the protesters could’ve done more harm than good—living as they do in a country that rallies around its hatred of America. This one is totally up for debate, though.

Later, Romney tells his audience that “at the United Nations… [Obama] spoke as if our closest ally in the Middle East was the problem [there]”. Here are the relevant speeches, since Romney doesn’t specify which (2009, 2011). While both include criticism of Israeli policies, both also acknowledge the ever-present dangers that Israel faces, both foreign and domestic. In my opinion, it would be very difficult to call a line from either speech part of the “chorus of accusations, threats and insults” that they supposedly contribute to. (Don't take my word for it though--read them yourselves!)

While the problems with China are real—it does “permit… flagrant patent and copyright violations, forestall… American businesses from competing in its market and manipulate… its currency”—Romney doesn’t offer a solution, saying only that “the cheating must finally be brought to a stop. President Obama hasn’t done it and won’t do it. I will.” Short of a wholesale trade war, which would be disastrous for both countries, I’m not sure if there’s really much that either Obama or Romney could do to manipulate China or change Chinese policies without offering major concessions in return. They are, after all, China.

Similar criticisms apply with the Iranian paragraph. Romney calls for “sanctions [to] be enforced without exception,” “negotiations [that] must secure full and unhindered access for inspections” and “a clear line” to be drawn against “any enrichment, period”. All of those things are current U.S. policy, though, and have been since the Bush administration. As with China, it’s not exactly possible to enforce domestic policy decisions on a foreign country; the US has tried sanctions, but they haven’t really worked. And Romney doesn’t mention the clandestine US program that has been working in-country to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program for years, including the Stuxnet virus and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists (although that was probably Israel). I’d say we’re doing plenty in Iran, quite possibly more than we should be.

Finally, Romney denounces the leaks of classified information that have happened over the past few months (like Iran, as I just mentioned) but he does so mostly on the assumption that the leakers were “seeking political advantage for the administration”. Not only has that yet to be determined, but Romney also says that the leaks demand a “full and prompt investigation by a special counsel”. There are two special prosecutors investigating them at the moment. Romney does have a point that all US district attorneys are Presidential appointees, so it makes sense an independent agency should be investigating the leaks, but it remains to be seen how harsh the attorneys’ report will end up being. And the implication that the prosecutors cannot be trusted because they're Obama appointees leads back, inevitably, to the idea that the leaks were orchestrated by the White House for political gain--which has yet to be proven or disproven. Give it time.

Now, I know this is campaign rhetoric. Only a fool would expect either side to adhere strictly to the facts, devoid of spin, glaring omissions or unfounded attacks—and that goes for Democratic candidates as well as Republican ones. But despite the historical Republican lead on matters of defense and national security, President Obama has a fairly strong foreign-policy record, which is reflected in the polls If Romney wants to supplant the President’s current lead on matters of foreign policy, he’ll have to do better than the Reno speech. The problem is that the best critiques of Obama’s foreign policy are currently coming from defense doves, which is precisely the opposite of what Romney is painting himself as. Attacking Obama’s national security policies from the hawk side won’t be an easy road for the former Governor.

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