Archive for March 7th, 2012

The Water’s Edge

Foreign Policy As Politics

First: Can Ron Paul, as I naively asked yesterday, win Idaho? Answer: Nope, not even close.

If Paul couldn’t win in Alaska, North Dakota or Idaho yesterday, he can’t win anywhere, but I still suspect he’ll stay around to the bitter end and try to be a force at the GOP convention, but no spoiler role for Dr. Paul.

Now…the topic of the day.

Somewhat lost yesterday amid Mitt Romney’s re-establishing himself as the bona fide GOP front runner was the president’s sharp retort to Romney and other Republicans who can’t seem to wait to get the country into another war.

Obama told them, in essence, bring it on. You don’t like the way I’m handling the prospect that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, be specific about what you would do. If that means launching a pre-emptive strike against Iranian facilities, say it in so many words.

The trouble for Romney and the rest is simply that, despite their protestations, there is little fundamental difference between what they would do and what Obama is doing. The historic import of this fact doesn’t relate just to the president’s re-election this fall, although it does relate, but what is also involved is the removal of the issue – Democrats being softies on foreign policy and defense – that has been hung round Democratic necks at least since George McGovern. Try as they might to tag Obama with the softie label, it won’t stick to the guy who went and got Bin Laden.

Frankly, from the standpoint of good politics and good policy Romney would have been better positioned to run against Obama in the fall had he used his speech to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) to stand with the administration on Iran. Had he quoted the once-great GOP Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who famously said that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” Romney would have looked for the first time like a statesman, something few will credit him with resembling so far during his damaging run for the nomination.

Romney might also have said something like: “If I’m in the White House next year, Israel will find that it has never had a better friend – you can count on it. At the same time I will not stand aside and let an issue as important to both Israel and the United States as preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons become embroiled in U.S. domestic politics.”

In essence he could have obliquely, but firmly told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to stick his nose into a U.S. presidential election. Had Romney played the moment to position himself as a serious student of the issues, as someone Americans can envision as Commander-in-Chief, he might have elevated himself above the petty and partisan. He can’t seem to make that pivot, however, and instead falls back on repeating the completely unsupportable opinion that he’ll keep Iran from having a nuke and Obama won’t.

Romney and the other GOP contenders also can’t reconcile their criticism of Obama with what is obviously the U.S. military’s caution about how to play the Iran situation. As the best writer around on national defense issues, Tom Ricks, notes in his Foreign Policy blog Romney clearly hasn’t thought deeply or clearly about the Middle East, but falls back on old lines of attack. Lines of attack, I’d note, that Obama will wrap around his neck come fall.

The GOP attack on Obama is all red meat, all Pavlovian response. As Obama said yesterday, “this [dealing with Iran] is not a game,” and he might have added not everything is partisan or can be played for partisan advantage.

The great Sen. Vandenberg, from Romney’s home state, could play politics with the best of them, but he also knew when to put politics aside. He had some nuance, an ability to finesse an issue, something the presumptive GOP nominee just doesn’t have.