By Rob Rakove
Mitt Romney believes in American greatness and thinks you should too. In a foreign policy address to the Virginia Military Institute on Tuesday, the Republican presidential nominee made his most detailed statement to date about foreign policy. Listing a baffling array of problems, he pronounced a single overarching remedy: the uncompromising exertion of US leadership around the world.
Romney's US seems born to lead, boasting "a proud history of strong, confident, principled global leadership". This record of leadership constitutes the central pillar of American exceptionalism, as he defines it. Critically, Romney hearkened back to the example set by the Virginia Military Institute's most celebrated graduate, General George C. Marshall, who "helped to vanquish fascism and then planned Europe's rescue from despair".
His speech unfavourably compared the Obama administration's Middle East policy with Marshall's robust efforts during and after World War II. Romney diagnosed the core problem of the Middle East as being an unfulfilled longing for US leadership, declaring: "So many people across the world still look to America as the best hope of humankind. So many people still have faith in America. We must show them that we still have faith in ourselves."
The statement carries more than a whiff of positive thinking: the notion that the US under Obama has not so much erred in its policies as in its outlook. Through the rediscovery of his country's innate virtue, Romney proposes to chart a new, bold course in the turbulent Middle East. Not for nothing do Romney bumper stickers declare: "Believe in America".
One may ask, however, how helpful the abundant self-confidence of George W. Bush was as he stumbled into Iraq and sought, without success, to contain Iran. More than any of his predecessors, Bush eagerly applied the rhetoric of freedom and open markets to the problems of the Middle East. Then, as now, angry protesters filled Middle Eastern streets and burned not a few US flags.
Romney's address reveals a desire to forge a common doctrine to wield against a wide range of policy problems. His analogies to the struggles against Nazism and communism reflect a tendency to treat each of the difficulties posed by the Middle East — Arab-Israeli peace, Syria, Iran and the recent assaults on US facilities — as separate fronts in a common struggle. They are not. The Salafists who assaulted US facilities in Egypt and Libya have nothing to do with Iran; they are as eager as Romney to see Bashar al-Assad topple.
Resources employed against one problem, moreover, reduce Washington's ability to deal with others. Romney may think he can simultaneously unseat Assad, pressure Iran, and respond to mobs throughout the region, all the while battling the Taliban toward the peace table. Such thinking seems reminiscent of Bush's willingness to open a second war in Iraq long before the struggle in Afghanistan had concluded.
It is here the tendency to depict the problems of the Middle East as reminiscent of postwar western Europe is so dangerous. In the 1940s, the US faced an array of war-ravaged European societies struggling to reconstruct their economies against a communist threat. It was a situation conducive to broad remedies like the Marshall plan. The US economy had risen to a previously unattained height of world dominance. The Europeans were fearful that the Americans, having defeated the German foe, would retreat back to their own side of the Atlantic. The postwar structures that Marshall helped to create attested as much to European desires as to US leadership.
The contemporary Middle East is, to say the least, far more ambivalent about US power. It should be instructive to Romney that Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected leader, is at pains to demonstrate his country's independence. Like Bush, Romney seems intent on relearning the lesson that Middle Eastern democratisation may not always bring more co-operative relationships.
Morsi, facing the challenge of maintaining his rule, clearly has no desire to be seen as a US client. Nor does the US stand astride the world as it did in the 1940s. If shunned by Washington, Morsi will have other allies.
Romney speaks vehemently of American exceptionalism, treating it as an article of faith. Yet he misinterprets both past and present. Such a misreading is only enabled by his emphasis on US leadership as the cure to all problems. His foreign policy rests on an unsettling amount of faith in a realm that requires cool, unflinching analysis and where pure belief is all too often a prelude to tragedy.
This post was originally published at The Australian