x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Romney's stumbles started even before he left home

Mitt Romney was skewered by the British press this week, but even before he set out overseas the presumptive US Republican presidential candidate was already faltering at home.

US Republican presidential aspirant Mitt Romney is visiting the UK, Poland and Israel in an effort to broaden his foreign policy exposure. But even before he left home, Mr Romney was laying the groundwork for what he hoped to accomplish.

Pledging not to be critical of President Barack Obama while overseas, in the days before his departure Mr Romney laid out his views in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), and in an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Israel Hayom, which is owned by controversial casino owner and a funder of Islamophobic propaganda, Sheldon Adelson.

If Mr Romney's VFW remarks were intended as a preview of the policies he would pursue, they were a disappointment. His speech was long on rhetorical flourish, but short on detail. His criticism of President Obama was harsh and unrelenting. Mr Romney charged that the current administration had "diminished American leadership", weakened the military, fomented a "national security crisis", and "betrayed the trust that allies place in the United States".

Delivering lines that sounded as if they had been prepared in the thick of the Cold War by President Ronald Reagan's speech writers, Mr Romney affirmed his belief that the US "is the greatest force for good the world has ever known"; that America must have "the strongest military in the world"; and declared his "one overwhelming conviction and passion" that "this must be an American Century" in which Americans "lead the free world and the free world leads the entire world".

If this all sounds like a replay of a George W Bush speech, it is precisely because many of Mr Romney's foreign policy advisers come out of the "Project for a New American Century", the group created by the acolytes of the Reagan era who then populated the Bush administration.

Mr Bush's rhetoric often conflated the good versus evil world view of neoconservatism with the Manichaeism of right-wing Christian fundamentalism. In Mr Romney's case there is a disturbing mix of neoconservative hawkishness and militaristic American supremacy with Mormonism's narrative of divinely ordained American exceptionalism.

Just as Bush's interpretation of Christianity was not shared by most Christians, Mr Romney's America-on-steroids is a minority view among Mormons.

Beyond the rhetoric there was little else noteworthy in Mr Romney's preview. As others have observed, many of his criticisms were either wrong on facts, or just bad policy.

For example, when he accuses President Obama of proposing "arbitrary, across-the-board ... massive defence cuts", he ignores the fact that these cuts are not Mr Obama's but the result of a congressionally-mandated agreement.

In other areas it is difficult to see where the policies advocated by Mr Romney differ from those of the White House. Despite his rejection of Mr Obama's Afghan policy or current policy towards Syria, Mr Romney ends up supporting very much the same approach to both.

And while the accusation that the Obama administration has betrayed European allies like Poland and the Czech Republic may score some points at home, the reality is that both countries appear quite satisfied with the commitments they have received from the US.

Mr Romney reserves his sharpest criticism for the way President Obama has handled Israel's difficult Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. This may sit well with some pro-Likud American Jews and right-wing Christians, but it ignores recent history and the imperative for American policy-makers to find a solution to the profoundly unsettling Arab-Israeli conflict.

Finally, Mr Romney may sound more threatening towards Iran than the Obama administration, it is not clear how he would deal with that country's nuclear programme other than by going to war.

What is deeply disturbing in all of this is the fact that Mr Romney continues to demonstrate how out of touch he is with the changing world the Obama administration inherited. The Republican candidate describes the world of today as a "dangerous, destructive, chaotic" place. But it was the reckless and neglectful policies of the Bush administration that created this state of affairs.

Two failed wars, a failure to use diplomacy when it might have made a difference, a penchant for unilateralism and a reliance on practices that violated the rule of law and tarnished America's image, all combined to produce widespread anti-American sentiment.

The Obama administration started out determined to change course. There have been some successes in rebuilding frayed relations with Nato allies and some Asian and Latin American nations. But when faced with strong domestic pressure in other areas, notably in the Middle East, the administration's resolve weakened.

On too many occasions they failed to build public consensus around alternative approaches to peace-making, to fighting extremism, and to supporting democratic reform. Instead, they resigned themselves to a variation of existing policy - taking the path of least resistance.

Still, even with the justifiable criticisms that can be offered of the Obama administration's conduct, it must be said that Mr Romney's full-throated endorsement of the failed policies of the Bush era is far more worrisome. This is what the US heard from the candidate this week before he left. We will, no doubt, hear more upon his return.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa