During Monday night’s third and final presidential debate, Mitt Romney the hardline hawk turned tail and ran away from almost every foreign policy position he’s held for months. Monday’s Romney backed unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014, after having previously declared the pull-out be “based upon the conditions on the ground determined by the generals.” The supporter of George W. Bush's war on Saddam Hussein now says, "We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan." He pledged to increase foreign aid, after having promised GOP primary voters he would start every country’s assistance “at zero.” And Romney’s bluster about a drawing a red line at Iran developing a “nuclear capability” just “one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon” was gone.
Of course, to keep the campaign’s focus on economic issues Romney’s strategy was to neutralize President Obama’s advantage on foreign policy and national security by seemingly adopting it lock, stock and not-so-smoking barrel. The only question left isn’t whether Romney's laughably long list of foreign policy flip-fops, flubs and follies shows his unworthiness to be Commander-in-Chief, but whether voters will punish him for it.
Romney Opposed U.S. Strikes Against Bin Laden in Pakistan. In December, Governor Romney brushed off Chuck Todd's suggestion that President Obama deserved credit for ordering the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden:
"I think in a setting like this one where Osama bin Laden was identified to be hiding in Pakistan, that it was entirely appropriate for this president to move in and to take him out," Romney replied, later adding that "In a similar circumstance, I think other presidents and other candidates, like myself, would do exactly the same thing."
As it turns out, not so much. Throughout 2007 and 2008, then Senator Barack Obama declared "we must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights." Like President Bush and John McCain, Mitt Romney opposed unilateral American action to kill the Al Qaeda chieftain and his henchmen:
"I do not concur in the words of Barack Obama in a plan to enter an ally of ours... I don't think those kinds of comments help in this effort to draw more friends to our effort..."There is a war being waged by terrorists of different types and nature across the world," Romney said. "We want, as a civilized world, to participate with other nations in this civilized effort to help those nations reject the extreme with them."
Of course, Romney's confusion about whether or not to respect Pakistani sovereignty may have something to do with his past reversals about whether or not killing Osama Bin Laden even mattered. After insisting in late April 2007 that "It's not worth moving heaven and earth spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person," Romney under fire from the right reversed course just three days later and declared of Bin Laden, "He's going to pay, and he will die." (That also explains his ridiculous comment five years ago that "I want to double Guantanamo," and his plans now to revive the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture.)
Romney's comical past on Afghanistan and lack of policy specifics on its present largely explain why the GOP nominee was so noticeably silent on the topic at the Republican National Convention.
Romney Flip-Flopped on Support for the Iraq War. Four years ago Mitt Romney felt pretty good about killing Saddam Hussein. As Byron York noted, during a January 2008 GOP debate Romney was asked, "Was the war in Iraq a good idea worth the cost in blood and treasure we have spent?" Mitt's response?
"It was the right decision to go into Iraq. I supported it at the time; I support it now."
But despite no new evidence in the intervening three years, by 2011 Multiple Choice Mitt was not so sure:
"Well, if we knew at the time of our entry into Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction -- if somehow we had been given that information, why, obviously we would not have gone in."
Under assault by the right, Romney abandoned that position within 24 hours. And the U.S. not only should have gone in, but should have stayed. He called the rapid--and very popular--transition of American forces from Iraq "tragic" and insisted a residual force of 30,000 troops should have remained.
Romney Talks Tough Even as Bain Profits in China. "If you are not willing to stand up to China," Romney told a GOP debate audience last October, "you are going to get run over by China." In February, he took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal to explain "How I'll Respond to China's Rising Power":
I will never flinch from ensuring that our country is secure. And security in the Pacific means a world in which our economic and military power is second to none...The sum total of my approach will ensure that this is an American, not a Chinese century. We have much to gain from close relations with a China that is prosperous and free. But we should not fail to recognize that a China that is a prosperous tyranny will increasingly pose problems for us, for its neighbors, and for the entire world.
But not problems for Mitt Romney's bottom line. As Americans learned from the New York Times in March, Bain Capital, whose investments still earn Mitt Romney millions annually, bought the video surveillance division of Chinese company that is a major supplier to the government in Beijing. And as it turns out, Romney's investments in Chinese outsourcing firms almost included the controversial telecommunications infrastructure giant, Huawei:
The Asia fund withdrew from another deal in 2008 that could have proved politically embarrassing to Mr. Romney. After the Bush administration objected, Bain dropped plans to team up with a Chinese technology giant, Huawei, to buy 3Com, a network equipment maker that supplies software and equipment to the Pentagon and other federal agencies.
Bain Caught Up in Romney's Failed Iran Disinvestment Campaign. China isn't the only location where Bain's business activity created political problems for Mitt Romney. In 2007, it ended his crusade for pension fund disinvestment from Iran after only a single day.
Romney followed the lead of his friend and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was touring the U.S. calling for pension funds to unload any holdings in companies doing business with Iran. Romney began his own grandstanding on Iranian disinvestment the next month by targeting the Democratic-controlled states of New York and Massachusetts. On February 22, 2007 Romney sent letters to then New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, Senators Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton as well as state comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli urging a policy of "strategic disinvestment from companies linked to the Iranian regime."
As it turns out, scrutiny begins at home. As the AP and others detailed, Romney's former employers and colleagues at Bain had links to very recent Iranian business deals:
Romney joined Boston-based Bain & Co., a management consulting firm, in 1978 and worked there until 1984. He was CEO of Bain Capital, a venture capital firm, from 1984 to 1999, despite a two-year return as Bain & Co.'s chief executive officer from 1991 to 1992.
Bain & Co. Italy, described in company literature as "the Italian branch of Bain & Co.," received a $2.3 million contract from the National Iranian Oil Co., in September 2004. Its task was to develop a master plan so NIOC -- the state oil company of Iran -- could become one of the world's top oil companies, according to Iranian and U.S. news accounts of the deal.
Bain Capital, the venture capital firm that Romney started and made him a multimillionaire, teamed up with the Haier Group, a Chinese appliance maker that has a factory in Iran, in an unsuccessful 2005 buyout effort.
Caught flat-footed by his hypocrisy that took the AP less than a day to uncover, Romney feebly responded:
"This is something for now-forward. I wouldn't begin to say that people who, in the past, have been doing business with Iran, are subject to the same scrutiny as that which is going on from a prospective basis."
(Republican Tommy Thompson is learning that lesson the hard way in the Wisconsin Senate race, as his own investments in companies making money with the mullahs in Tehran has come under that very kind of scrutiny.)
Romney Calls for Indictment of Ahmadinejad on War Crimes Charges. While Romney's Tehran disinvestment immediately crashed and burned, his campaign to prosecute Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for war crimes continues.
In January 2007, Romney joined his "close friend" Netanyahu among the speakers at the Herzliya Conference. There, he first announced his support for Netanyahu's approach. Then in the fall of 2007, Romney took his case to the United Nations. He not only demanded the General Secretary Ban-Ki-Moon "revoke any invitation to President Ahmadinejad to address the General Assembly," but insisted that the UN prosecute the Iranian President for his 2006 boast that he would "wipe Israel off the map."
"If President Ahmadinejad sets foot in the United States, he should be handed an indictment under the Genocide Convention."
That accounts for Mitt's passing comment during the November 22, 2011 CNN national security debate. When Romney said he wanted to "indict Ahmadinejad for violating the Geneva -- or the Genocide Convention," he was just awkwardly repeating an agenda Bibi has been pushing for years.
Pushing for years in the U.S., that is, without success. Last year, Mother Jones explained why. For starters, "U.S. policy has been to not honor the International Criminal Court; we are not a signatory to the Rome Treaty." In addition:
It's widely interpreted that a statement supposedly egging on genocide is not legally considered a tool of genocide, unless it can be taken into evidence as proving direct intent and premeditation. Furthermore, it would be unprecedented to indict a foreign leader for a genocide that hasn't even taken place yet.
Romney Said He Does and Doesn't Need Congress to OK Iran Strikes. Leaders of both American political parties are in agreement that Tehran must not acquire nuclear weapons and that "all options" must be on the table, including military strikes against Iranian installations. Mitt Romney just isn't sure whether he needs the blessing of Congress to undertake them.
Asked by Bob Schieffer of CBS if he would need Congressional authorization to strike Iran, Romney answered with a big "no":
"I can assure you if I'm president, the Iranians will have no question but that I will be willing to take military action if necessary to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I don't believe at this stage, therefore, if I'm president that we need to have a war powers approval or special authorization for military force. The president has that capacity now. I understand that some in the Senate for instance have written letters to the president indicating you should know that a containment strategy is unacceptable. We cannot survive a course of action which would include a nuclear Iran we must be willing to take any and all actions."
The notion that "the President has that capacity now" would have come as a surprise to Truman, Johnson, Clinton or even Bush when it came to the successful nuclear tests by the Soviet Union, China or North Korea. But even leaving those historical speed bumps aside, the 2012 version of candidate Mitt Romney would come in for criticism from his 2007 incarnation. During the Wall Street Journal/MSNBC GOP debate in October 2007, Governor Romney gave Chris Matthews a much different response to the same question:
MATTHEWS: Governor Romney, that raises the question, if you were president of the United States, would you need to go to Congress to get authorization to take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities?
ROMNEY: You sit down with your attorneys and tell you want you have to do, but obviously the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat. The president did that as he was planning on moving into Iraq and received the authorization of Congress...
MATTHEWS: Did he need it?
ROMNEY: You know, we're going to let the lawyers sort out what he needed to do and what he didn't need to do. But, certainly, what you want to do is to have the agreement of all the people -- leadership of our government as well as our friends around the world where those circumstances are available.
Contradicting both positions, Iran-Contra figure turned Romney adviser Elliott Abrams demanded President Obama go to Congress now for authorization of military force against Iran. If President Romney's neocon advisers resurrected from the disgraced Bush team get their way, he's going to need it.
Romney's Changing Red Line with Tehran: Nuclear Weapon or "Capability?" If his recent rhetoric is any reflection of President Romney's plans, the American people should be preparing for war with Iran. Because while the Obama administration has drawn its red line with Iran at the actual development of an atomic weapon, Romney is once again insisting Tehran cannot be allowed to reach "nuclear capability." By that murky standard, the mullahs may have already crossed the line to trigger a pre-emptive attack by a Romney administration.
To be sure, Governor Romney has been less than clear on this vital point. In July, his aide Dan Senor (who as PR flack during the occupation of Iraq famously told a group of reporters a year into the war, "Off the record, Paris is burning. On the record, security and stability are returning to Iraq.") announced, "If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing that capability, the governor would respect that decision." But in a September interview\with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Romney contradicted that line, saying he has the same "red line" as President Obama: "Iran may not have a nuclear weapon." Of course, Mitt was in turn contradicted by his adviser Eliot Cohen, who claimed that Romney "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon." And during his address at VMI earlier this month, Romney seemingly reversed course again:
"I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability."
Romney Says Russia is Threat Number One. In the fall of 2009, Mitt Romney authored an article titled, "Iran: Biggest Threat Since Soviets." But earlier this year, he changed his mind.
That about-face came in the wake of President Obama's open mic comment to outgoing Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that he would (naturally) have more "flexibility" after the November election. In response, Mitt Romney declared Russia is his new enemy number one:
"These are very unfortunate developments and if he's planning on doing more and suggest to Russia that he has things he's willing to do with them he's no willing to tell the American people, this is to Russia this is without question our number one geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."
Romney's Confused Opposition to the START Treaty. Of course, Mitt Romney's confused response to the new START agreement between the United States and Russia should trouble all Americans. Would-be Commander-in-Chief Romney didn't merely oppose the nuclear arms control pact favored by virtually the entire U.S. defense establishment, but revealed he didn't understand it at all. As Steve Benen explained in March:
A couple of years ago, as debate over the New START nuclear treaty was intensifying, Mitt Romney decided to weigh in on the debate with an op-ed, hoping to demonstrate some acumen on international affairs. It didn't go well. Fred Kaplan wrote at the time, "In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and -- let's not mince words -- thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney's attack on the New START treaty."
Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), arguably the Republican Party's most respected voice on foreign policy, issued "an unusually harsh statement," calling Romney out for his nonsense.
Romney Calls for $2 Trillion Increase in Defense Spending. Romney's nonsense also extends to his indefensible defense budget. Romney slammed Republican leaders--including his own running mate Paul Ryan--for voting for the August 2011 debt ceiling deal that is set to sequester $550 billion from the defense budget over the next decade. But not to content to rest there, CEO turned Commander-in-Chief Mitt Romney would spend money like a drunken sailor, adding $2 trillion in new Pentagon outlays without either a strategy to justify it or funding to pay for it.
As Governor Romney explained in September:
"I want to maintain defense spending at the current level of the GDP. I don't want to keep bringing it down as the president's doing. This sequestration idea of the White House, which is cutting our defense, I think is an extraordinary miscalculation in the wrong direction."
Romney is proposing to do for the Pentagon what spreadsheet users like him call "fill right." By setting defense spending as fixed percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the DoD budget would fall and rise along with the economy. The result is a golden shower for the military that would make Ronald Reagan look like Mahatma Gandhi.
Whether or not the United States is at war or peace, or as it is now, drawing down from a conflict, the implications of Romney's 4 percent "floor" are mind-boggling. CNN noted in its analysis that the price tag could reach $2.1 trillion over the next decade. As the Boston Globe detailed in March:
The cost appears to be far greater than when Romney first broached the idea several years ago, when the nation was spending closer to 4 percent of GDP on defense. Under next year's budget, defense spending is projected to be about 3.2 percent - yet Romney has stuck by his 4 percent vow. Put another way, that means Romney proposes spending 61 percent more than Obama at the end of a decade-long cycle, according to the libertarian Cato Institute.
Enacting such an increase at the same time that Romney wants to slash taxes and balance the budget could cost trillions of dollars and require huge cuts in domestic programs. As Romney's website puts it matter-of-factly, "This will not be a cost-free process."
That's right. By 2021, even a peacetime Romney defense budget would approach $900 billion a year. That open spigot would come despite the fact that baseline U.S. defense spending (that is, outside of "overseas contingency operations" war funding for Iraq and Afghanistan) has risen during every year of the Obama administration so far.
Romney Opposes and Supports a Two State Solution in the Middle East. Mitt Romney's now famous "47 percent" closed door speech in May didn't merely reveal his true feelings towards half the American people. As it turns out, Romney was also brutally honest in his views about the Middle East process and the prospects for two-solution between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
On the most pressing diplomatic issue in the region, Romney told his deep-pocketed donors that the United States should do--wait for it--nothing:
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway, for political purposes, committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel, and these thorny issues, and I say, "There's just no way." And so what you do is you say, "You move things along the best way you can." You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that this is going to remain an unsolved problem. We live with it in China and Taiwan. All right, we have a potentially volatile situation but we sort of live with it, and we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve it. We don't go to war to try and resolve it imminently."
"Living with it," that is, persistent but "manageable" levels of violence, is exactly Benjamin Netanyahu's approach. On that point as with his opposition to a Palestinian state, Mitt stood with Bibi. As Romney put it in a January 26 Republican debate:
"There are some people who say, should we have a two-state solution? And the Israelis would be happy to have a two-state solution. It's the Palestinians who don't want a two-state solution. They want to eliminate the state of Israel.
And I believe America must say -- and the best way to have peace in the Middle East is not for us to vacillate and to appease, but is to say, we stand with our friend Israel. We are committed to a Jewish state in Israel. We will not have an inch of difference between ourselves and our ally, Israel."
Or to be more accurate, not a single inch of difference between President Romney and his good friend and former Boston Consulting Group colleague, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not, that is, unless American voters obviously object. Which is why during his speech two weeks ago at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney contradicted everything he's been saying in public and private for years:
"Finally, I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel. On this vital issue, the President has failed, and what should be a negotiation process has devolved into a series of heated disputes at the United Nations. In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new President will bring the chance to begin anew."
As Mitt Romney's sad record shows, what a new President would really mean is return of bluster and confusion to the White House. Romney hasn't just already failed the Commander-in-Chief test. His inability to make up his mind and penchant to mock friends and allies would leave America with an unsteady hand in the Oval Office and a fool on the world stage.
(An earlier version of this piece appears at Perrspectives.)