Judging Romney Fairly





9-17-12

K.C. Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College, CUNY. He is the author of numerous books and articles on U.S. foreign relations and politics, including "All the Way with LBJ: The 1964 Presidential Campaign" and "Congress and the Cold War."


Mitt Romney giving his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Credit: Mallory Benedict/PBS NewsHour

It’s not fair to criticize Mitt Romney solely for choosing to politicize a foreign policy crisis, as he did when he recently released a statement in response to the events in North Africa. “It's disgraceful,” he asserted, “that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”

After all, a linkage between partisanship in domestic politics and foreign policy events dates to the 1790s. The first party system developed in part out of conflicting visions of international affairs (and featured partisans claiming that their opponents were effectively agents for either England or France). Ernest R. May’s classic book The Making of the Monroe Doctrine illustrates how one of the most famous diplomatic statements in U.S. history was shaped, at least in part, by the political interests of President James Monroe and the men competing to succeed him. In the 1850s, Republican members of Congress rallied against executive unilateralism in foreign affairs while Democrats defended the concept; in the 1870s and into the 1880s, under Republican presidents, the reverse was true. (Similar reversals occurred in the Clinton and Bush presidencies.) Partisanship informed Henry Cabot Lodge’s tactics in opposing the Treaty of Versailles; even Arthur Vandenberg’s expression that “politics stops at the water’s edge” never applied to Israel or East Asia.

Nor is it entirely fair to criticize Romney’s inflammatory rhetoric by comparing it to the more restrained reaction from GOP presidential candidates in 1980, after the failure of the hostage rescue mission approved by Jimmy Carter.

The Atlantic uncovered contemporaneous reaction from Ronald Reagan: “This is the time for us as a nation and a people to stand united.” George H.W. Bush was similarly non-partisan, commenting, “I unequivocally support the president of the United States -- no ifs, ands or buts -- and it certainly is not a time to try to go one-up politically. He made a difficult, courageous decision.” Yet these comments came in a far more restrained political culture, one in which candidates did not operate under the pressure of either the 24/7 news cycle that encourages more and more extreme statements to obtain attention. In any case, it’s not as if either Bush or Reagan didn’t exploit the aftermath of the rescue mission’s failure to advance their broader argument that Carter was a foreign policy failure.

Nor -- especially -- is it fair to criticize Romney on grounds that any criticism would have been out of place because the protests had no relationship to previous White House policies.

As David Frum has pointed out, an alternative existed to the Obama administration’s decision to engage a fanatically anti-Israel and fundamentally anti-Western party such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Post-war West Germany and post-Cold War Czechoslovakia banned anti-democratic parties; the United States could have pressured Egypt to have followed suit. Of course, as Frum doesn’t acknowledge, such an approach would have carried risks of its own: would the United States have supported a military crackdown that might have been necessary to enforce such a ban?

If these are grounds on which it’s unfair to criticize Romney, however, it’s more than fair to criticize him for his statement’s impulsiveness. That a presidential nominee would be willing to comment definitively on an international crisis before he had access to all (or even many) of the facts raises serious concerns about the nominee’s good judgment. Viewed in the light most favorable to Romney, at the time he issued his statement he wasn’t aware a) that the Cairo embassy’s statement hadn’t been a response to the breach of the embassy (and had nothing to do with events in Libya at all); and b) that Secretary of State Clinton had condemned the violence on behalf of the administration.

After Romney’s subsequent refusal to apologize for or even modify his statement, a Republican operative lamented to New York’s John Heilemann, “This was a deliberate and premeditated move, and it totally revealed Romney’s character; it revealed him as completely craven and his candidacy as serving no higher purpose than his ambition.”

Romney’s decision not to retreat left him wedded to a factually inaccurate response. As Jon Chait has noted, the candidate’s single-sentence comment about the Cairo embassy statement contained three misstatements of fact: “The statement was issued by an embassy staffer, not by Obama; it did not express sympathy with attackers; and it was not a ‘response’ to the attacks but in fact preceded them.”

It’s true, of course, that contemporary political culture revolves around talking points and poll-tested language that, at best, bear only a passing resemblance to the truth. For historians of public policy, this development is most unwelcome; it’s hard to imagine, for example, that future scholars will find much, if anything, of use in items such as the Congressional Record or Sunday TV roundtables (sources that once were quite useful), since for the most part, politicians have come to rely on language that they think people want to hear, rather than words that express their actual beliefs and thought processes. Yet even by the lax standards of our contemporary political discourse, Romney’s statement stood out.

Efforts to discern the “real Romney” invariably revolve around whether a President Romney would eschew his campaign promises in favor of governing as a technocrat, as he did for part of his tenure as Massachusetts governor. In international affairs, however, Romney has offered little reason on the campaign trail to believe that his foreign policy will be anything but reckless and blustering. If, as I suspect, it’s an overstatement to deem the Libyan affair Romney’s “Lehman moment,” the nominee’s reaction nonetheless was revealing, in deeply disturbing ways.


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