Romney is exaggerating his foreign policy differences with Obama

On foreign policy, the Republican candidate and the US President share a method and a worldview.

This year’s presidential election inverts the foreign policy attributes of the 2008 candidates: Barack Obama is now tough and experienced, Mitt Romney fallow and untested.

One of John McCain’s more memorable assertions in 2008 was that he would "follow Osama Bin Laden to the gates of hell." Obama’s actions have spoken louder than McCain’s hyperbole. When the president sanctioned the raid that killed Bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011 – declining to inform Pakistan of US intentions and using ground forces instead of launching an airstrike – he largely armoured himself to Republican attacks on his lack of fortitude. So where can Romney land meaningful blows now?

Romney’s main problem is that he is running against an incumbent who – through a step-change in the frequency, audacity and lethality of drone attacks – has arguably waged war on Al Qaeda more effectively than his predecessor, and unarguably at a lower human and financial cost. (Predator strikes, while ethically problematic, kill fewer people than ground wars.) In this context how does Romney communicate a greater desire to confront America’s enemies without sounding like Barry Goldwater in 1964, whose belligerence was an electoral godsend to Lyndon Johnson?

Romney is rarely less convincing than when seeking to out-hawk Obama on facing down Iran, Russia – "without question our number one geopolitical foe" – and China. Perhaps it is self-awareness that explains his discomfort in espousing such views. For Romney’s operating principles closely resemble Obama’s. Indeed, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Romney failed to name a single substantive difference with Obama on foreign policy.

Romney won the governorship of Massachusetts because he knows where to find the centre, and he sought out the median voter through this year’s fractious Republican primaries. The Tea Party ensured that this point was farther to the right than at any time in his party’s history. But the key point is that Romney is hardwired to operate in the middle-ground of whatever constituency he is charged with persuading. And the world looks more like pluralist Massachusetts than it does a bloc of Republican primary voters.

As a serious candidate in the 2007 primaries, Romney was commissioned to write a thought-piece for Foreign Affairs. The purpose of the article was to mollify and reassure in a polarized political environment. In it he stakes out little new ground, instead identifying points of agreement among so-called realists and neoconservatives.

Romney observes that the United States is in need of ‘an overarching strategy that can unite the United States and its allies,’ but cautions that this should be formed "not around a particular political camp or foreign policy school but around a shared understanding of how to meet a new generation of challenges. Romney’s emphasis is on achieving results not on pursuing agendas.

His speech at the Citadel last October was his most important foreign policy speech to date. Its purpose was to characterise Barack Obama as defeatist and out of tune with American values – in the same way that Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson and Ronald Reagan lambasted Henry Kissinger through the 1970s. So Romney accused Obama of issuing an "eloquently justified surrender of world leadership," a depiction far removed from reality. The president is utterly devoted to ushering in another "American century," as his well-documented admiration for Robert Kagan – author of The World America Made, and a key adviser to Romney – amply illustrates.

There are, of course, clear differences in each person’s style. Romney consciously emulates Ronald Reagan’s optimism and moral certainties. But like Reagan in his second term, Romney is likely to talk and act in substantively different ways. Rich Williamson, a veteran GOP foreign policy adviser, has struggled to differentiate his man from Obama. Williamson identifies "fundamental differences about a naive faith in engagement and a dangerous reliance on the Security Council versus having an approach where you have strength, where you're willing to lead, and where you have strong relationships with our friends and allies." But who could honestly say that Obama is not willing to lead or have strong relationships with friends and allies? And would Romney really ignore the UN when it might serve a useful function? Obama and Romney are cut from the same cloth; a source of angst to the base of both parties.

Writing in the Weekly Standard earlier this year, William Kristol observed that "Mitt Romney is an intelligent, hardworking, pragmatic problem-solver with a conservative disposition. He might as well present himself that way." This is true, though it fails to acknowledge the fact that Romney’s primary virtues – his competence, diligence and "small c" diplomatic conservatism – are also Obama’s.

A chasm separates the candidates on domestic policy and Congress is an alarmingly polarised and ineffectual place. On foreign policy, however, Obama and Romney share a method and a worldview. As an "etch-a-sketch" – as adviser Eric Fehrnstrom ill advisedly described him – Romney has shown a willingness to say and erase whatever it takes to win. But he will surely pursue a modest diplomatic agenda if a stagnant economy allows him to defeat Obama on election day. Authoring foreign policy with a permanent marker tends to concentrate the mind.

David Milne, senior lecturer in political history at the University of East Anglia, is the author of America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War. A longer version of this article appears in the Chatham House journal, International Affairs.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign rally in Jacksonville, Florida. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Milne is senior lecturer in political history at the University of East Anglia, and the author of America’s Rasputin: Walt Rostow and the Vietnam War.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser