Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

October 25, 2012

The Blessings of Romnesia

By David K. Shipler

Getting a fix on Mitt Romney’s positions and beliefs is like trying to nail a custard pie to the wall. But let’s give a small cheer for his Etch-A-Sketch routine on foreign policy. Holding his finger to the wind (while we’re mixing metaphors, we might as well go whole hog), he and his handlers apparently detected a fresh breeze of moderation among the electorate, so he abandoned his super-hawk routines on China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and Israel. As Vice President Joe Biden observed, Romney agreed with Obama so often during their debate that he seemed about to give the President his endorsement.

Fussy foreign-policy wonks have listed ad nauseam the important subjects ignored, bemoaning the lack of creative ideas, the surfeit of pedestrian formulas, and of course the factual misstatements, mostly by Romney--as in Obama’s fictional “apology tour.” But it’s encouraging that Romney now (at least for the moment) sees the center as the place to be when addressing the international maelstrom he will inherit if he wins.

This apparent shift is a little premature. It usually happens in the Oval Office, where the rigors of foreign affairs drive presidents toward the comfortable middle, no matter if they begin on the right or the left.
Their initiatives sometimes look dramatic because they defy liberal-conservative stereotypes: Richard Nixon opening to China, Ronald Reagan belatedly engaging Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, and Obama getting militarily aggressive with drones, Special Forces, and the like. It makes you wonder what would have become of George McGovern, the principled liberal who just died, if he had beaten Nixon in 1972 instead of being trounced.

Despite the disparate domestic policies pursued by Democrats and Republicans, foreign policies in modern America have usually followed well-worn paths, with a notable exception: George W. Bush, whose rightist advisers, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, were galvanized by 9/11 into a radical remaking of America’s international posture. Without those terrorist attacks, and given the right’s earlier objections to projecting military force into dubious nation-building ventures, the center might have been alluring to Bush as well.

This is because most deviations from the moderate, cautious courses charted by traditional policy look from the White House as if they are going to meet rough ground. Especially in an age of global economic interconnection, there is no cost-free confrontation, and most presidents are risk-averse, no matter what party they’re from. They do not go looking for fights abroad, they understand the need to cultivate allies and bargain with adversaries. Again, Bush II was an exception.

Americans seem to appreciate such moderation. Fox News spun Romney’s custard-pie foreign policy remake as a sign that he was “presidential,” suggesting that if you want to look “presidential,” you can’t look radical. This may be a hopeful indication that after two nearly fruitless wars that the country hasn’t bothered to pay for, voters have sobered up with a streak of common sense.

Who the real Romney is does not get answered by his shifts and reinventions. But the United States is caught in an extensive web of interests and relationships that do not allow for much innovation in foreign policy. He doesn’t look creative or imaginative in any field, much less international affairs, so if he’s elected, we shouldn’t expect a sudden burst of inventive initiatives.

The real test would be in a crisis, which is often where American policy is forged. Presidents are not usually inventors. They are essentially managers of risk, weighing pros and cons of this course or that, juggling reactions to unpredicted reversals and threats, which race at them uncontrollably. They must feel like hockey goalies fending off one whizzing puck after another. And in those instants of decision, they make policy.

We know how Obama handles crisis management: with cool, careful fact-gathering and rational thinking. Even if you don’t agree with his surge in Afghanistan, which looks increasingly like a bad gamble, or with his autocratic formulation of a kill list and the extensive use of drones, you can’t argue that he’s made these calls heatedly or impulsively.

We don’t know about Romney, and we know less about him because of the way he has conducted his campaign, like a shape shifter adapting to his momentary environment. He seems rational and careful lately, but has been impulsive and unthinking in the recent past. He certainly doesn’t value the truth, which raises questions about how well he would process facts from the ground in shaping foreign policy. His character-- exposed by his 47% comment, his casual insults of British officials, his disdainful remarks about Arab culture, and his rush to judgment about the Benghazi attack--is deeply flawed, and character matters when a person has to make quick decisions on national security.

So, Romnesia has given us some additional information to inform our assessment of the man: The foundations of foreign policy are likely to be undisturbed if he wins, but when crises erupt, as they will, how steady and reasoned would he be?

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