Wednesday, July 7, 2010

On Tuesday, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took to the opinion page of the Washington Post to deliver a full-throated assault on the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New-START) championed by President Obama and the nation's military leaders. Romney's op-ed, titled "Obama's worst foreign-policy mistake," takes President Obama to task for caving to the Russians and receiving "nothing whatsoever in return."

Romney's piece was another step toward a likely 2012 run for president, an attempt to assert his national security credentials on the national stage. As a one-term governor Romney has none of the "tough on national security" experience that conservative voters crave, and must convince the Republican base that he can handle Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention Iran, North Korea, and other global hot spots.

Romney's effort, however, was nothing short of a disaster. His critique has been lampooned as "thoroughly ignorant," "groundless and misleading," and "ridiculous." Even The American Conservative called Romney's argument "absurd."

Fred Kaplan of Slate, an expert on nuclear weapons and arms control, went through Romney's argument line by line, debunking nearly every claim made by Romney. Romney uses wildly inaccurate weapons numbers, misunderstands the military's position on missile defense, and, at one point, even suggests that the Russians would try to mount ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles) on strategic bombers and railroad cars.

Romney is not an international arms control expert, but he is an intelligent and analytical man. I'd bet my student loans that this was bad staff work. An initial draft was probably written by an aide, edits were made, not all were included, and someone pressed "send" prematurely. It's no excuse, but no politician or elected official writes everything submitted in their name, and mistakes happen.

Bad staff work doesn't mean Mitt Romney is ignorant of foreign policy, but it does illustrate a problem for the Republican Party - its leaders are not serious foreign policy leaders. Republicans, who have traditionally enjoyed wide margins over Democrats on national security issues, have turned inward to focus on domestic policy, ceding foreign policy to the Democrats. The Tea Party has swept the conservative base with an emphasis on tax cuts, budget deficits, and constitutional law. The rising stars and most popular officials in the Republican Party, from Senator Jim Demint of South Carolina and Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi to Sarah Palin, are all focused primarily on domestic issues. The foreign policy leaders in the party, Senators like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, are either past their prime or too moderate to survive a primary. One needs to look no further than RNC Chairman Michael Steele's recent comments on Afghanistan to see the lack of foreign policy credibility in the leadership of the Republican Party.

The 2010 midterms will likely be decided on a combination of health insurance reform, taxes, and jobs - Iraq and Afghanistan will be important issues, but there is relatively little disagreement between the parties on US policy in both countries. The 2012 presidential election, however, will be a showcase for foreign policy. Voters don't see Congress as protecting US national security, but they do see presidents that way. When President Obama stands next to his Republican challenger, that challenger will be judged by his or her ability to protect the nation and conduct its foreign affairs. As it stands, there aren't many Republicans who can play that role.

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