Former governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney was the lunch speaker at the Foreign Policy Initiative conference. In a conversational interview with FPI board member Dan Senor, he appeared more relaxed and fluent than he had on the campaign trail. Without a fixed script (or any notes), he was able to demonstrate some impressive grasp of details while setting forth his big-picture critique of the Obama foreign policy. He gave credit to the president for his willingness to stick to a winning strategy in Iraq and for not “yanking all the troops out,” as he had promised during the campaign. But that is where his praise ended.
His overall take on the Obama approach is that the president is seeking a “dramatic and revolutionary” redesign in American foreign policy unlike what we have seen over the past 50 years, when presidents of both parties committed to “promoting, defending, and securing American values in the world”—including democracy, free trade, and human rights. Instead, Romney argued that Obama is seeking to make the U.S. into a neutral arbitrator. Going through the list of recent Obama policy decisions in Honduras, Iran, Eastern Europe, and Israel, he contends that the approach is similar: distance ourselves from our friends and move “closer to our foes.” The risk, Romney explained, is that our friends will no longer be able to count on the U.S. and will look for alliances and assistance elsewhere. He was especially biting in his criticism of Obama’s decision on missile defense, taking the administration to task for “kicking sand” in the faces of our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic. And he made particular mention of the Justice Department’s investigation of the CIA, which, he explained, risks exposing our “friends” who went out on a limb in the interrogation of terrorists and who now are the subject of that inquiry.
What’s Obama’s motivation? Well, he joked, “all politicians love love,” and there is an element of playing to international public opinion. But what is really at issue, he contends, is that Obama shares the view of certain “foreign-policy circles” that American is “in decline” and that it is his job to manage America’s decline. Romney gave his most forceful statement in rebuttal: “I do not subscribe to the view that American is in decline or has to be in decline.” Decline is not inevitable, he argued, pointing to unique American advantages of geography; an “inventive, creative, dynamic” economy; and democratic free-market capitalism that remains the desired model for people around the world.
As for Afghanistan, he made the point that Obama declared this the “good war,” spent the campaign arguing to shift resources there, put in his own military team, and now has a recommendation from General McChrystal but is now pleading for more time to make up his mind whether to follow the recommendation of his team or fulfill his own stated goals. He remarked, “This is not the time for Hamlet.”
On missile defense, Romney said he was “dumbfounded” by the president’s decision. He derided the new and improved intelligence update that suggested that Iran wasn’t really focused on long-term missile-delivery systems. He asked, “Is our intelligence really that good?” But his main critique focused on “the message to the Czechs and the Poles and to our friends worldwide that we are pulling back from our friends.” Our foes—who, he noted, are exulting in the decision—get the message that if you are “belligerent and aggressive, the administration will give you what you want.”
He also took issue with the administration plan to take defense spending down from 4 percent to 3 percent of GDP and delivered an impassioned criticism of protectionism and of Obama’s decision on tire tariffs.
In the Q and A, I asked him about the state of U.S.-Israeli relations. Romney’s response centered on Iran, indicating some agreement with Bret Stephens’s view that Obama might be pursuing an approach that forces Israel to attack in order to defend itself in the absence of resolute U.S. action. What we need instead, he argued, are “crippling sanctions,” diplomatic moves to Arab states to induce the Palestinians to “stop bugging Israel,” and a willingness to keep talking about “a military option.” He repeated that this is an option we should not be taking off the table. He also argued that we need to begin communicating to Iran and its people that it is “very dangerous” to go down the nuclear-arms path, because we will respond if such a weapon is ever used by Iranian surrogates, not only “to the entity that used it” but also to the entity that supplied it. Iran should, he emphasized, “feel the pain for pursuing a nuclear pathway.”
It was in many ways a surprising outing for Romney, demonstrating more depth and verve than many in the room could recall from the campaign. Whether that message resonates outside the room, with the larger conservative community and with elected leaders, remains to be seen. But certainly we will hear more from him in the future.