from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Republican Foreign Policy Puzzles

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers remarks on July 30, 2012 (Jessica Rinaldi/Courtesy Reuters).

August 29, 2012

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney delivers remarks on July 30, 2012 (Jessica Rinaldi/Courtesy Reuters).
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If you are interested in foreign policy issues—or believe the inherent powers of national security decision-making vested in the executive branch requires a president who can successfully fulfill the constitutionally-mandated role of “Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy”—this election isn’t offering much. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney skillfully dodges the subject, and does not permit his vast army of foreign policy advisers to challenge President Obama’s foreign policy record on talk shows or opinion pages. Instead, they have resorted to anonymous leaks to reporters about how little Romney and his close circle of politicos care about foreign policy.

Romney is smart for avoiding any discussion of what happens on the other 91.77 percent of the earth. Public opinion polls demonstrate that the American people are not particularly concerned about foreign policy issues. Less than 5 percent of Americans say foreign policy and/or national security is a priority in every poll conducted in 2012. And a recent IPSOS/Reuters poll found that only 4 percent of Americans believe foreign affairs (including wars, immigration policies, and terrorist attacks) is “the most important issue facing the U.S. today”—the lowest number since Obama entered office.

Yesterday, the Republican Party published its 2012 platform entitled, “We Believe in America” (in case you had any doubt). One of the seven sections included foreign policy guidance, “American Exceptionalism,” for a President Romney that covers twenty-six countries, regions, and themes. These do not appear to be in any particular order, such as importance to U.S. national interests or Romney’s priorities. Like all political platforms, this laundry list will not inform whoever is sworn into office on January 20, 2013. Nevertheless, there are three lines worth noting:

“With unstable regimes in Iran and North Korea determined to develop nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching the United States, with the possibility that a terrorist group could gain control of a nuclear weapon, it is folly to abandon a missile shield for the country.”

Since President Reagan gave his Strategic Defense Initiative speech in 1983, missile defense has been a central tenet of the Republican platform, irrespective of actual ballistic missile threats. However, highlighting that terrorists could obtain a nuclear weapon is the least convincing rationale for missile defense yet, since no terrorist group has ever expressed interest in obtaining intercontinental ballistic missiles.

As a CIA National Intelligence Estimate first concluded in December 2001: “The Intelligence Community judges that US territory is more likely to be attacked with WMD using nonmissile means—most likely from terrorists—than by missiles, primarily because nonmissile delivery means are less costly, easier to acquire, and more reliable and accurate.” Before September 11, 2001, the intelligence community held the longstanding belief that the political prestige and deterrence strength of missiles made them the weapon of choice for WMD attacks against the United States. Yet, if any terrorists obtained a bomb today, they could, in the words of my former boss and Harvard professor Graham Allison, “smuggle it in a bail of marijuana.”

“We must immediately employ a new blueprint for a National Military Strategy that is based on an informed and validated assessment of the potential threats we face.”

This would be a novel approach to developing a National Military Strategy (NMS) that would contravene the longstanding process by which U.S. national security guidance is created. First, the White House is supposed to produce a National Security Strategy, followed by the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review. Second, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff uses that higher-level prioritization to inform the NMS. Next, the NMS serves as the foundation for the annual Chairman’s Risk Assessment, which “provides the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s assessment of the strategic and military risks associated with executing the missions called for by U.S. military strategy.” Finally, all of these steps inform the Guidance for the Development of the Force, Guidance for the Employment of the Force, and various campaign and contingency plans. Upending this process makes little sense, especially since the Republican platform does not identify any specific problems with the normal threat inflation that appears in the current National Military Strategy.

“The security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States; our alliance is based not only on shared interests, but also shared values. We affirm our unequivocal commitment to Israel’s security and will ensure that it maintains a qualitative edge in military technology over any potential adversaries.”

The phrase “vital national security interest” is a significant upgrade and represents a major shift by the Republican Party. As the 2000 bipartisan Commission on America’s National Interests—which included members such as Condoleezza Rice, John McCain, and Paul Krugman—defined the term, “Vital national interests are conditions that are strictly necessary to safeguard and enhance Americans’ survival and well-being in a free and secure nation.” The commission concluded that “Israel survive as a free state” is a vital national interest, which is a strikingly different statement than the security of Israel. Tellingly, President Obama has never framed the security of Israel in such a way, although he has described resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a “vital national security interest.”

In addition, although security threats to Israel might be particularly salient this election cycle, the phrasing is a stark departure from every post-Cold War Republican platform.

1992:  “In this environment, Israel’s demonstrated strategic importance to the United States, as our most reliable and capable ally in this part of the world, is more important than ever. This strategic relationship, with its unique moral dimension, explains the understandable support Israel receives from millions of Americans who participate in our political process.”

1996: “Israel, our one democratic ally in the region with whom we share moral bonds and common strategic interests.”

2000: “It is important for the United States to support and honor Israel, the only true democracy in the Middle East….While we have hopes for the peace process, our commitment to the security of Israel is an overriding moral and strategic concern.”

2004: “The Republican Party shares President Bush’s commitment to the security of America’s democratic ally Israel and the safety of the Israeli people. We remain committed to ensuring that Israel maintains a qualitative edge in defensive technology over any potential adversaries.”

2008:  “Israel is a vigorous democracy, unique in the Middle East. We reaffirm America’s commitment to Israel’s security and will ensure that Israel maintains a qualitative edge in military technology over any potential adversaries.”