Anyone who worried Mitt Romney would be overly cautious or avoid taking strong stances during his foreign policy speech today was proved wrong. Romney delivered a substantive critique of Obama’s Middle-East policy, and outlined his own strategy, including some bold positions on Syria and Afghanistan. The best soundbite of the speech, “hope is not a strategy,” will surely be a theme the campaign hammers home between now and the election. This is more than a catchy line; it’s an encapsulation of Obama’s Middle-East policy. In the Arab-Spring countries, democracy needs to be guided, supported, and encouraged. And yet Obama has seemed reluctant to use U.S. influence on this front.
Today’s speech indicated that this would be very different under a Romney administration:
America can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are real achievements won at a high cost. But Al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria. And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East.
I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy. We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of, and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership, but of passivity.
On Afghanistan, which Obama characterized as the “important” war during the 2008 campaign, but never seemed fully committed to, Romney indicated that he would follow conditions on the ground rather than political timelines:
And in Afghanistan, I will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014. President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.
In Syria, Romney said he would arm the anti-Assad forces, and explained why U.S. involvement there is critical in terms of our values and strategic interests regarding Iran. He also noted that it’s important to show our support for the Syrians fighting the Assad regime is more than just words.
In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran—rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.
Romney also rejected a policy of “daylight” between Israel and the U.S., committed himself to the peace process and a future Palestinian state, and reiterated his red line on Iran (nuclear capability). The speech was well-delivered, too. The debate performance seems to have given Romney a new boost of confidence, and the fact that he’s catching up in the polls made the speech seem weightier than it might have seemed only a few weeks ago.