Romney Shouldn’t Let Politics Stop at the Water’s Edge

So, how would Mitt Romney have the U.S. balance its concerns about Russia, its “number one geopolitical foe,” and Iran, “the most severe security threat facing America and our friends”?

That was one of several strategic mysteries that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee left unresolved in his speech Tuesday to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Nevada. On Wednesday, Romney begins a trip to the U.K., Israel and Poland, intended in part to burnish his foreign policy credentials. For the sake of U.S. voters and the world, he should feel free to use the trip to further explain his views -- and to criticize President Barack Obama’s.

What was most striking about Romney’s address was the extent of congruity between his positions and Obama’s on places such as Afghanistan, Iran and even China, which Romney had earlier declared he would immediately brand a currency manipulator (a pledge he has quietly, and wisely, softened in an accompanying policy manifesto).

Two of the Romney speech’s sharpest criticisms of Obama, over leaks of classified information and defense-spending cuts, seemed less like useful distinctions than disingenuous political attacks.

Did the leaks of classified material about the killing of Osama bin Laden, the target selection for drone attacks and the foiling of an airplane bombing plot -- all foreign policy successes -- deserve more space than any other issue? No. Romney’s call for a special prosecutor to investigate them is likewise misguided. In this case, it would be overkill: No administration publicly endorses such leaks, yet every administration engages in them, and they occasionally serve a public good by increasing the transparency of government actions.

On defense spending, Romney unfairly blamed Obama for the huge automatic cuts in the Pentagon’s budget, which were part of the debt-ceiling compromise both parties in Congress agreed on last summer. Romney’s charge that there was no “serious military rationale” on Obama’s cuts could equally be applied to his own call for a floor under U.S. defense spending of 4 percent of gross domestic product. That sounds more like corporate welfare for defense contractors than a rational national-security policy.

Romney would do well to explain the impact of his ambitious military spending plans -- increasing the Navy’s shipbuilding rate from nine to 15 ships a year, for example -- on other areas of the U.S. budget. “Pay any price, bear any burden” rhetoric is cheap; but its actual cost, as attested to by the parlous fiscal state of the U.S. after more than a decade of war, is not.

Romney says he will not “question American foreign policy” while touring another country. There’s no reason he could not, as other candidates have before him, set out his vision of how to advance security, freedom and prosperity. In fact, one of the more telling criticisms of Obama today is the contrast between the better, more hopeful world he laid out as a candidate in his 2008 speech in Berlin and the overly cautious half-steps he has taken to achieve it.

More broadly, it’s time to retire the hoary convention, more breached than observed, that “politics stops at the water’s edge.” People forget that when Senator Arthur Vandenberg delivered that chestnut in the late 1940s, he was arguing not that road-tripping politicians should keep their mouths shut but that Democratic and Republican party leaders should not seek to exploit foreign policy issues for political gain.

These days, that goal is more impossible than noble. Foreign policy is no longer the province of two parties and an apolitical elite -- if ever there was one -- but of a raucous rabble of interest groups, corporations, nonprofit organizations, faiths and diasporas competing for attention and influence. To sort through that cacophony, plain old citizen voters need the benefit of honest, detailed information and vigorous debate. Let’s hope the candidates give it to them -- whether at home or abroad.

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