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Romney in Israel. Credit: Washington Post

A few days ago, Alexander Ewing posted a “firm riposte” to my blog which criticised Romney and his entourage for their neo-con leanings. Within it he argues that those who claim that a Romney Presidency would result in a return of the neo-cons are simply creating “a storm in a teacup”, and that Romney has used the language of the neo-cons only as a means to distance himself from Obama and portray the President as weak on the world stage. In reality, he argues, Presidents of both parties tend to follow broadly similar foreign policies, regardless of their own ideological leanings or party affiliation. In other words, Romney uses tough talk but it’s largely irrelevant since it won’t alter actual policy.

While I think his article makes some insightful comments, particularly in regard to the element of bipartisan continuity in U.S. foreign policy, I feel it does injustice to those arguments which do express concerns over both Romney’s ideological leanings and his perceived incompetence in the field. There are in fact very few commentators who postulate the “doomsday” scenario Alex offers up as a straw-man argument through his process of selective quoting. Indeed, most scholars have acknowledged that Romney’s oratory may well turn out to be just that, as I explained fairly fully;

“There is evidence to suggest that Romney might find himself acting under greater restraints than his current rhetoric would imply he understands (…) (i)t is unclear to what extent there is real support for an adventurist foreign policy in the population as a whole, or even in the grass roots of the GOP. America remains embroiled in Afghanistan, a war whose popularity among voters continues to diminish, and many US citizens are still smarting from what they perceive as American failure in Iraq. Moreover, the resurgent forces of conservatism within America, upon which Romney must rely to get elected and which plan to hold him to account if he becomes President (namely the Tea Party and their ilk) do not appear to have much appetite for a renewal of American adventurism abroad”

I therefore agree with Alex when he argues that Romney has “rhetorically taken a hard line on a few things (China, Russia and Iran)” but that the reality “is far more boring. I think by now we should realise that what one says on the campaign trail might not translate into White House policy”. The real issue is not, however, that Romney’s neo-con inspired foreign policy will inevitably lead the U.S. to ideologically-justified war but because his reckless use of such rhetoric highlights his inexperience in foreign policy and may create far greater problems than he realises. As I argued,

“As many presidents have found, what you say on the campaign trail tends to haunt you when in office. Should Romney make it to the White House he may find himself regretting having spoken so boldly and having made so many foreign enemies along the way.”

Romney may well have no intention of starting a trade war with China or of supporting Israel to a far greater extent than Obama. Unfortunately, in foreign policy, perceptions of intention often matter as much as actions themselves: How else to explain the Cold War? Romney’s belligerence in word, if not in deed, may well be enough to tip several already delicately-balanced scales in a negative direction.

Alex also argues that I, and others who postulate such critiques, offer a “muddled” portrait of the Presidential candidate:

“On one hand they say that Romney does not know what he is doing in terms of foreign policy (insulting all of Britain ahead of Olympics) and one the other hand he is a secret neocon who knows exactly what he is doing – planning to attack Iran whilst holding hands with Benjamin Netanyahu”,

Sadly, there is no contradiction between being a neo-con and being incompetent. It’s perfectly possible to be both. Indeed, launching a war with Iran in collusion with Israel would almost certainly make you a candidate for both categories simultaneously.

It is also entirely possible to be a neo-con restrained by domestic and international factors, but a neo-con nonetheless. Romney’s decision to take such a line and thereby distance himself from Obama in spite of the President’s overall popularity in the area may highlight the extent of his ideological convictions which, even when restrained, will colour the way he sees the world and, perhaps more importantly, the way the rest of the world sees him. It is for this reason that Obama, despite towing a broadly similar line to Bush, inspires nowhere near his degree of hatred in the rest of the world: They simply believe his intentions are better.

In reality, Barack Obama’s Presidency has shown that even the most liberally-inclined Presidents tend to be hawks when it comes to foreign policy. When you’re Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful nation on earth, your first concern will always be the security of that country, at whatever cost. However, America’s unique role is that its security and prosperity depend a great deal on global security. For this reason its foreign policy, while ruthlessly self-serving, must also be a fine balancing act wherein competing interests are weighed and compromises made, concerning international and domestic actors alike. For myself, I would simply rather a U.S President who understands those constraints and who uses a more cautious rhetoric. Because careless words have consequences in the game of war and peace.

A few points of contention that do not fit into the main body of argument:

  1. When arguing that the Middle East has democratised in spite of America rather than because of it, this is based upon the evidence of the results of such democratisation which has almost universally brought to power parties who are less pro-U.S. than their authoritarian predecessors.
  2. When saying that much of the world no longer needs the financial support of the U.S as China is offering itself as an alternative source of funds this in no way implies that China is in the business of offering support to democratisation efforts. Rather, that the U.S. no longer has the unique ability of being able to craft the foreign policies of other nations simply because it is their only source of credit.

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