Mitt Romney’s speech at VMI on foreign policy has been widely condemned as vague and lacking in substance, sort of like the man who gave it. But the speech is also full of suggestions and criticisms of the Obama administration that are simply not realistic. The speech is Romney’s “Mission Impossible,” only without the cool theme music and also without a prayer of being actually achievable short of launching a series of five wars. I’ve decided that my initial assumption that a businessman of Romney’s experience must know something about the world was dead wrong. Apparently it is possible to sit in cushy big offices in companies like Bain, and to remain completely ignorant of foreign affairs. Romney’s speeches are all just a replaying for us of the prejudices of CEOs when they play golf together and complain vaguely about the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and so forth. Or, maybe Romney has gotten so many campaign contributions from arms manufacturers that he can’t help see foreign affairs through the lens of new wars he wants to fight.
1. The First War: Return to Iraq
Romney wants to send US troops back into Iraq and complained again about Obama’s “abrupt” withdrawal from that country. I don’t know how many ways there are of saying this, but it was from the beginning absolutely impossible for US troops to remain in Iraq legally. Romney apparently let Dan Senor, Bremer’s Neocon spokesman who came out to lie to us every day in Baghdad, write the following paragraph:
“In Iraq, the costly gains made by our troops are being eroded by rising violence, a resurgent Al-Qaeda, the weakening of democracy in Baghdad, and the rising influence of Iran. And yet, America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence. The President tried—and failed—to secure a responsible and gradual drawdown that would have better secured our gains.”
Romney’s premise, that the US military in Iraq had some sort of ‘achievement’ that is in danger of being lost now that it is out of the country is ridiculous. The United States launched an illegal war of aggression on Iraq that virtually destroyed the country and kicked off a power vacuum that eventuated in a civil war that still continues at a low level. In 2006 when there were over 150,000 US troops in Iraq, in some months the death toll from political violence was 2,500. That doesn’t even count all the armed Iraqis the US military was killing. The United States military never controlled Iraq and could never prevent bombings and attacks. When the US troops stopped patrolling major cities, the death toll promptly fell, because guerrillas were no longer setting improvised explosive devices to hit US convoys – operations that often wounded Iraqi by-standers as well.
In August, 2012, the death toll from political violence in Iraq was 164, half what it had been in July, after a crackdown by Iraqi army and police. So Romney is just wrong that there is some sort of secular trend in Iraq toward the kind of violence that had racked the country half a decade ago, and it is wrong to think that the US military was anyway primarily responsible for the end of the mass killings. What appears to have happened is that in 2006-2007, Iraqis living in mixed neighborhoods having both Sunnis and Shiites ethnically cleansed one another. Once the neighborhoods were mostly only one sect, the killing subsided (you’d have to get in your car and drive a while to find someone of a different persuasion to kill). That wasn’t a US achievement, it was a US failure!
By the way, it seems likely that more people are still being killed monthly in Mexico’s drug war than die in Iraq of sectarian strife. Does Mr. Romney want to put Woodrow Wilson’s troops back into Mexico along with W.’s troops in Iraq?
It was the then leader of the Republican Party, George W. Bush, who negotiated the December 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing US troops from Iraq with the Iraqi parliament. Obama simply implemented the agreement Bush signed. The reason the accord had to be worked out with the Iraqi parliament was that Bush wanted to be sure that US officers and troops could not be prosecuted for military actions they undertook in Iraq. The only way to forestall such prosecutions was a bilateral agreement authorizing US troops to fight in Iraq, and signed by the Iraqi government. Simply negotiating it with the prime minister would not have made it legally solid enough to protect the troops. Their presence had to be authorized by the Iraqi legislature. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was barely able to get the agreement passed, and only succeeded because it seemed to a lot of members of parliament their best bet for ushering US troops out of the country.
For that agreement to be renegotiated so that US combat units remained in Iraq would have required another vote of parliament. The Iraqi parliament is dominated by Shiites, along with Sunnis and a minority of Kurds. The Kurds were the only group that might have voted to keep US troops in the country, and they just don’t have that many seats. The Islamic Mission (Da’wa) Party of al-Maliki, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, and the Sadrists or followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, dominate parliament, along with Sunni nationalists. None of them wanted US troops in their country in the first place. They would never, ever have voted for a continued US troop presence in Iraq, and there would have been no way for Romney to make them do so if he had been president. His snide implication that Obama had a shot at this endeavor, and took it and missed, is just inside the beltway wishful thinking.
Guys! The Iraqis don’t like you. They didn’t want you in their country. They didn’t give you candy or put garlands around your neck. They killed over 4,000 of your troops, hundreds more of your contractors, and only failed to kill more because they were poorly armed compared to you.
After eight years of ‘shaping’ Iraq, you got a Shiite government allied with Iran and Syria, the leader of which is now in Moscow seeking a $5 billion arms deal from Mr. Putin, so as to become more independent of the US. That was your best shot at empire, with hundreds of thousands of troops cycling through and a trillion dollars to play with, and it didn’t work. Because in today’s world it doesn’t work. Political-military empire is over. People are mobilized.
The only way for the US to dominate Iraq any more would be to re-invade the country, which would be Romney’s first war.
2. War number 2: Syria
Romney apparently wants to get deeply involved in the civil war in Syria. It is not clear why, except that he wants to differentiate himself from Obama. On Libya, he had grudgingly accepted the no-fly zone but called anything beyond that ‘mission creep’ and ‘mission muddle,’ and he thought too many resources were going into overthrowing Gaddafi. But apparently he isn’t afraid of mission creep were he to put his hand into the Syrian beehive. He said,
“The President has failed to lead in Syria, where more than 30,000 men, women, and children have been massacred by the Assad regime over the past 20 months. Violent extremists are flowing into the fight. Our ally Turkey has been attacked. And the conflict threatens stability in the region.”
He goes on to say later in the speech,
“we are missing an historic opportunity to win new friends who share our values in the Middle East—friends who are fighting for their own futures against the very same violent extremists, and evil tyrants, and angry mobs who seek to harm us. Unfortunately, so many of these people who could be our friends feel that our President is indifferent to their quest for freedom and dignity. As one Syrian woman put it, “We will not forget that you forgot about us.” It is time to change course in the Middle East . . . “
“In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”
So, it seems clear that Romney wants to “lead” in Syria, i.e., get involved in the war there.
But the reason that not only Obama but the entirety of Europe has declined to get involved in Syria is that there is no UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force. In its absence, any army that used force except in self defense would be open to being hauled before judges in the Hague or judges in some country where the judiciary claims universal jurisdiction.
If the US went into Syria unilaterally, the same thing would happen to Romney as happened to Bush – the US would bear all the costs and would gradually become isolated and alone in the enterprise. As for fearing that people won’t forget that the US did not come to their aid, you could equally fear all the people who will be upset that the US intervened militarily, or you could fear ingratitude even if we did intervene (there are lots of examples of both).
3. The Third War is with Iran
Romney couldn’t stop Iran’s nuclear enrichment program if he were president, any more than Obama can. That step would require an invasion and occupation of the country. Simply bombing the facilities would only briefly set them back.
“I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran, and will tighten the sanctions we currently have. I will restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region—and work with Israel to increase our military assistance and coordination.
For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions—not just words—that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated. I will reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security—the world must never see any daylight between our two nations. I will deepen our critical cooperation with our partners in the Gulf. “
But close cooperation with Israel against Iran would ensure that none of our Arab allies would be willing to associate themselves with such a campaign. There is a reason that George H. W. Bush kept PM Yitzhak Shamir out of the Gulf War.
And, Romney can’t tighten sanctions on Iran any further without going all the way to an actual naval blockade of Iranian commerce. The US already has a financial blockade against Iran. Blockades, like ultimatums, cause wars. Countries threatened with strangulation frequently strike out. Even more stringent sanctions and blockades risk pushing Iran into reacting violently for self-preservation.
4. The fourth war is in Afghanistan
Although Romney said he would wind down the war there by 2014, just as Obama has pledged, he intended to ‘remain strong’ and to ‘consult our military,’ i.e. he implicitly is reopening the question of the US withdrawal from that country. He said,
“President Obama would have you believe that anyone who disagrees with his decisions in Afghanistan is arguing for endless war. But the route to more war – and to potential attacks here at home – is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation.”
There is no reason for Romney to bring up his political prospects being damaged unless he is considering reneging on Obama’s pledge to get out of Afghanistan. Likewise, that is implied by his reference to ‘evaluating conditions on the ground’ and taking ‘the best advice of our military commanders.’ On Afghanistan, Romney is pulling an anti-Nixon. He appears to have a secret plan not to end the war in Afghanistan.
5. The small wars: Intervention in Yemen, Somalia, perhaps even Libya in a ‘war on terror'
The US has hit Yemen and Somalia with drone strikes and is occasionally kind of at war in those countries, though it is a desultory, occasional, and limited sort of conflict.
Romney says that drones are not enough. What would you use in such conflicts besides drones? Infantry? The implication of being ‘more forceful’ and dismissing drone strikes is that you would support the insertion of troops into those conflicts.
Romney’s various wars would, if pursued, bankrupt the country and cause more backlash and terrorism against the United States. Romney thinks that US prestige flows from strength, defined as military might.
But in fact what people in the Middle East admire about the US is its values, such as democracy and the rule of law. They hate our military hubris and still have not forgiven us for what we did to Iraq.
The only positive thing about Romney’s speech was his commitment to getting a two-state solution, with a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Unfortunately, we know from his leaked fundraiser recording of last May that he intends to ‘kick the can down the road’ on the Israel-Palestine issues, and that he does not trust the Palestinians with a state. So that positive language is just lies.
Four or five wars and lots of other conflicts are not a foreign policy vision, they are a nightmare.
Editor's Note: This essay originally appeared on September 9, 2012, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole. It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.