With two Republican presidential debates in a row focused on foreign policy — one last week and another next Tuesday — the arena in which the president has the most direct influence is finally receiving the attention it deserves. Motifs picked up by the media include Herman Cain's ignorance, Ron Paul's unorthodox views and Jon Huntsman's experience.
But ironically, flying too far under the radar are the views of frontrunner Mitt Romney, who has called for for increased defense spending, military expansion and preemptive war. In debates and stump speeches, he often falls back on a handful of sound bites to support these goals, but the underlying implications of his one-liners remain unexamined.
I begin with the line that elicits the wildest applause from Republican presidential debate audiences: "If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today."
First, the idea that President Obama is somehow soft on defense is dubious at best. He has expanded our footprint in Afghanistan; authorized U.S. military force in Libya, Yemen, Pakistan and sub-Saharan Africa; and utilized targeted strikes to kill Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki. His administration has reasserted America's presence in the Asia-Pacific with a series of aggressive military and diplomatic initiatives. Obama's foreign policy has, in word and deed, advanced a liberal interventionist justification for a grand strategy of U.S. global primacy.
Given that this agenda is seemingly not "strong" enough for Romney, one is led to wonder, what more would a President Romney have us do? He gave insight into this question when he appointed a retinue of foreign policy advisers that include former George W. Bush officials who were boosters of the Iraq War, defenders of warrantless wiretapping and advocates of torture as an interrogation technique.
The more egregious error in this statement is the implication that strength is a direct function of the expansiveness of our military. Rather, America's strength is a function of its people, its economy, its values. It stems from global economic leadership and diplomatic engagement. To be sure, a forward-deployed military is an important component of our strength. But a leaner military deployed with more strategic intent would serve us much better than one bogged down in nation-building in foreign lands.
Which relates to the next one-liner that Romney peddles as policy: "I will never, ever apologize for America."
Such a categorical statement leads one to wonder: Would a President Romney never, ever apologize for the abuses perpetrated by American soldiers against Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib? Would he never, ever apologize for America's use of torture on human beings as an interrogation technique? Would he never, ever apologize for invading Iraq based on false claims about its possession of weapons of mass destruction?
Certainly, "America" as a nation did not deliberately perpetrate these wrongs. But as a democratic republic, America is the sum of its parts. When we as a people do not exercise sufficient oversight over our bureaucracy, our legislature, our military, we are in part responsible for their actions. Indeed, we are morally beholden to feel remorse for those actions undertaken by U.S. officials that violate our most cherished virtues.
To conclude, I turn to Romney's own conclusion to his foreign policy speech at the Citadel last month: "Believe in America."
Such a statement initially seems benign and even inspiring. We can and should believe in the historic ideals that our founders articulated and that America represents—individual liberty and self-determination and human dignity.
When applied to the messy realities of U.S. foreign policy, however, such a prescription becomes problematic. Republicans warn us not to place our trust in America's politicians, and yet when it comes to the use of that gravest of government powers—military force—Romney is asking us to simply believe.
But the fact is, foreign policy officials, though generally well-meaning, make mistakes. They are susceptible to groupthink and bureaucratic inertia. They harbor human antipathies, shortsightedness and arrogance. As citizens, it behooves us to critically examine the decisions they advocate. Historically, it has been Americans' reluctance to do so and instead just rally around the flag in the face of any perceived threat that has led America, great nation that it is, to make decisions that have at times resulted in human suffering both at home and abroad.
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Each of Romney's sound bites posits a straw man that wants America to be weak, that apologizes for America and that does not believe in America's future. In Romney's worldview, that straw man could be President Obama, Romney's GOP opponents or anyone who disagrees with his militant neoconservatism. But in an increasingly interconnected world in which America must cooperate and engage rather than coerce and go it alone, such rhetoric is a profound disservice to the American people.
Rachel Esplin Odell is a research analyst in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is also a volunteer on the foreign policy staff of Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign and a leader of Generation H D.C., a grassroots group supporting Huntsman for president.