It was one of those weeks where everyone was glad Friday rolled around and it was all finally over – too much had happened. Sometimes you just need a pause, some weekend downtime to make sense of it all. Maybe that’s never really possible in a presidential election year, where each campaign is more than willing to tell you what you should really think just happened, and also each campaign is equally willing to tell you what the other campaign said just happened isn’t what really happened at all. It gets tiresome, and at the end of the second full week of September, for most people, who are not really invested in politics, it probably seemed best to just let it all go and watch a few college football games on Saturday and a few pro games on Sunday. The next week would be more of the same – dramatic and dire events, and the usual suspects telling you that what you just saw wasn’t what you saw. No wonder most people ignore politics.
Still this was the week when the stock market hit a five-year high, and held it, and seemed on its way to hit an all-time high soon. No one expected that. Unemployment is still sky high and the Republicans are saying the deficit is so large now that our world will soon come to an end – America will turn into Greece or some such thing. It’s not happening. The European Central Bank and now even the sour and smug Germans have decided to pump in funds, as much as necessary, to keep the whole Eurozone experiment from collapsing and their common currency intact, more or less. That moved the markets up, as did Apple with the release of its newest iPhone – which doesn’t seem much different than the last one. But it didn’t matter, as everyone had to have one. There was a bit of an Apple rally, followed by the big event – Ben Bernanke announced a new round of massive quantitative easing. The Fed would buy forty billion in bonds and mortgage-backed securities and pretty much anything out there, each month, indefinitely. That pumps a lot of money into the economy, leaving everyone more liquid, and it may well bring down the unemployment rate, which Bernanke said was the general idea. The markets soared, and the Republicans were livid – saying this was a cheap trick to get Obama reelected and totally unfair. Their whole point had always been that the economy is a mess, in deep trouble, and it is all Obama’s fault. Now, just before the election, Ben Bernanke – a staunch Republican first appointed by George Bush – had screwed them. They were a bit stunned.
But at least they had the turmoil in the Middle East to work with. Mitt Romney must have known something had to be done, which probably explains that whole business with the riots in Libya and Egypt and the death of our ambassador – so he said Obama sympathizes with these folks who kill our folks. In essence, Obama is a traitor. He likes Muslims. He hates Americans. At least that was the implication. Romney said that’s disgraceful, and kept repeating it. Romney was talking on and on about how Obama acted disgracefully, and smirking, because he knew he was lying about the basic facts of what happened. That didn’t matter. He thought it was working well.
It was working well for Obama. Blake Zeff explains here that Romney is being forced to veer away from a more coherent campaign strategy, which is exactly what happened to Hillary Clinton and McCain in 2008:
Clinton and McCain both became so vexed by their inability to puncture Obama’s positive image that they lost control of their campaigns against him. Frustrated with their inability to win a single news cycle their strategy ultimately devolved into a simple determination to score points wherever possible, even when it put them at odds with their original strategy. With Hillary Clinton, a campaign based on superior experience turned to accusations of plagiarism and flip-flopping. In the case of John McCain, a campaign based on patriotism and straight talk came to revolve around a random encounter Obama had with a plumber about taxes (and, in the ultimate demonstration of their anything-to-break-through mentality, Sarah Palin).
And now look at Romney, who set out in the general to focus voters’ attention, with relentless intensity, on the lackluster economy. As a result of losing news cycle after news cycle, he’s now throwing spaghetti, rigatoni, and fettuccine against the wall, and hoping something will stick.
The original strategy was clear enough – Romney was an absurdly successful businessman who actually knew how things work in what he likes to call the real world, so he could fix the economy. After all, he had become one of the richest men in America, maybe not in a nice way, and with his tax returns no one will ever know if in an ethical way – but you can’t argue with success. Of course you can, but the idea is that to do so is somehow un-American, and so it was obvious that it shouldn’t matter that Romney knew nothing about foreign policy or the military or geopolitics. Other things matter more, which is why he picked that libertarian Ayn Rand would-be budget guru, Paul Ryan, as his running mate. Ryan knows even less about foreign policy or the military or geopolitics, but he’s all every-man-for-himself free-market theory, with a whole bunch of social conservative views on gays and women and abortion and birth control thrown in.
They had it all worked out, except the economy started to turn around and the Middle East imploded. Suddenly they really were losing news cycle after news cycle, trying to explain to America that the economy is far worse than the economic figures and market indexes show, and really, America, you’re still in misery, really you are. That may not be what people want to hear. Optimism sells better than doom and gloom – unless you’ve been raised on tent meetings with all that talk of fire and brimstone, where you’d damned well better repent, or die. There are folks who respond to that sort of thing, but probably not enough of them to get Romney elected. He had to veer off message. As Blake Zeff would say, they had to puncture the positive.
The problem was that on the matter of what George Bush called the War on Terror, it seems Obama has done what Bush couldn’t do. That Osama fellow is now gone and drone strikes have taken out most of al-Qaeda now, and Obama won’t even call it a War on Terror. He just does the job and moves on – others can call it what they will, if it makes them happy. And Obama navigated us through the Libya business, closely coordinating with our European allies and keeping the Arab League on board, and stood back and let Egypt change governments without getting us all tied up there, and ended our odd and absurd war in Iraq, and Iran isn’t nuclear yet, and Israel hasn’t started World War III by nuking them first. Obama is no slouch in these matters. He may have had little foreign policy experience himself, but he seems to be a fast learner with good instincts – do what’s necessary and work with the allies and be clear with adversaries – be careful and calm and respectful, but firm.
That leaves little opening for Romney, except to argue that he would be the opposite of careful and calm and respectful, and perhaps firm in an entirely different way. One thinks of George Bush, and the Romney campaign is kind of going there:
Advisers to Mitt Romney on Thursday defended his sharp criticism of President Obama and said that the deadly protests sweeping the Middle East would not have happened if the Republican nominee were president.
“There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation,” Richard Williamson, a top Romney foreign policy adviser, said in an interview. “For the first time since Jimmy Carter, we’ve had an American ambassador assassinated.”
Williamson added, “In Egypt and Libya and Yemen, again demonstrations – the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve and we can’t even protect sovereign American property.”
Yes, these guys are always bringing up Jimmy Carter – it makes them happy – but the assertion is odd, and entirely hypothetical. If… if this, if that, things would be different. It’s impossible to prove any of it. You just have to accept the premise on faith – the riots which have now spread to twenty countries would not have ever happened at all had Romney been president. They only happened because no one respects Obama, and thus no one respects America. You see, Obama sends the wrong message, that we care what any of you miserable people think. We don’t. Respect us or get out of the way.
That’s the George Bush part, and there’s also this:
It was Obama who faced criticism for saying that he did not consider Egypt an ally – a comment that his administration struggled to explain.
“The president can’t even keep track of who’s our ally or not. This is amateur hour – it’s amateur hour,” said Williamson, a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador. He was among those who counseled Romney to respond aggressively on Tuesday night and was offered by the campaign to speak about the candidate’s foreign policy.
Williamson was referring to Obama’s interview Wednesday night with Telemundo in which the president said that the U.S. relationship with Egypt was a “work in progress.”
Obama is the amateur and Romney is the old pro at international relations and tricky geopolitics?
That’s an odd assertion, but to clarify matters, another Middle East expert, Juan Cole, sees a real pro at work:
Egypt is among about 14 countries designated at “major non-NATO allies” by US presidents. This status recognizes that they do joint military exercises with the US, and gives them special access to advanced US weaponry. However, some of them are not allies in the precise legal sense. That is, there is no obligation of mutual defense. A true ally, as with NATO states, is one that the allied country is pledged to defend from attack. Still, US officials typically have referred to Egypt as an ally, and the State Department made clear that it continues to do so.
So Obama was technically correct that Egypt is not an ally in the sense that Britain or even Turkey is. But unlike what some media outlets wrote, this statement was no gaffe. Rather, Obama was playing hardball with Morsi, trying to impress upon him that the status of ‘major non-NATO ally’ is not automatic now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in control. It will have to be re-earned, at least from Obama’s point of view. And the lack of response on the embassy attack is not consistent with ally status. Non-NATO ally status is bestowed by a stroke of the presidential pen, so Obama could take it away.
Cole goes on to explain that it looks like Morsi and his administration have finally caved to United States pressure, by publicly denouncing the attacks:
Obama has enough assets in his contest with Morsi to influence the Egypt situation – loan reduction, civilian and military aid, and the danger that a US State Department travel warning could devastate Egypt’s tourist industry, which is worth billions a year. Even Obama’s willingness to play a politics of reputation with Morsi’s Egypt seems to have had some effect.
Obama’s ally comment wasn’t a gaffe at all. It was hardball diplomacy. The Morsi government had sponsored the demonstrations that kind of got out of hand and ended with the storming of our embassy in Cairo, and he won’t do that again. Now he’s actually denouncing them, and by the end of the week the Egyptian government was keeping the remaining demonstrations small and isolated, and no problem. One wonders what Mitt Romney would have done here. Maybe he would have demanded respect and let it go at that.
Don’t count on it. At the end of the week Romney had changed his tune on the crude anti-Muslim video that started the whole mess:
I think the whole film is a terrible idea. I think him making it, promoting it showing it is disrespectful to people of other faiths. I don’t think that should happen. I think people should have the common courtesy and judgment – the good judgment – not to be – not to offend other peoples’ faiths. It’s a very bad thing, I think, this guy’s doing.
This was the video he said America should NEVER apologize for – free speech and all that – and perhaps Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh and all the rest will now say Mitt has sold out and sympathizes with the terrorists and murderers of our ambassador, just like Obama. Isn’t this statement that the other side might have a point at least showing real weakness, which no one respects, ever, anywhere? Mitt’s in a tight spot here.
There is a way out of that tight spot, which is getting back to the original operating theory here, which Marc Ambinder notes has a long history:
It is worth taking a brief tour through the Museum of Provocative Weakness. That phrase is a favorite of Ambassador John Bolton, who said on August 28 that Romney “doesn’t believe strength is provocative, he believes that American weakness is provocative.” It has been used many times by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. After the decision had been made to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld told ABC News that it didn’t really matter if a war enrages Arab populations in the Middle East. “All I can say is if history has taught anything, it’s that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do.” When Rumsfeld was fired by President Bush three years later, he used his final turn at the podium to say that “it is not only clear that weakness is provocative, but that the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative.”
Ambinder would probably see Romney’s comment on the video, saying it was the real problem here, as a momentary slip, because that’s just not Mitt:
This phrase is the beating heart of Mitt Romney’s world view. You can see it in his books. You can hear it whenever he condemns President Obama for his “apology tour.” In practice, this means that whenever America has a choice about whether to demonstrate its will to power, it ought to exercise it. Anything else would telegraph weakness, a lack of resolve that tips the balance of power in the world away from the good guys.
Andrew Sullivan carries this forward:
In business, I can see the logic of this. But in diplomacy and foreign policy? Romney doesn’t understand that restraint can also be a form of strength; that exercising power incompetently can weaken a country’s power; that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars deeply wounded America in human and fiscal terms, with minimal long-term gains to offset these massive short-term losses.
I can see why a decade and a half ago, you could hold these views. I was not as far out as Romney is, but after the triumph in the Cold War, cockiness got the better of me. But I cannot see how you can maintain this worldview after the Bush-Cheney debacle.
But that is what we are learning about Mitt Romney: his foreign policy mind hasn’t changed since the 1970s. The last decade changed nothing. His foreign policy adventures as a candidate – from alienating our closest ally, the UK, to ceding US Middle East policy to the far right in Israel, to his latest implosion on the embassies in Libya and Egypt – renders him as reckless a choice in dealing with abroad as George W. Bush.
His obtuseness is dangerous. It is a gift to America’s enemies and a threat to our friends.
But other than that he’s a nice enough fellow? In American Prospect, Paul Waldman adds this:
Until a few days ago, few people cared all that much what Mitt Romney thought about foreign policy. It isn’t an area where he has any experience, or, let’s be honest, anything in particular to say. His denunciations of President Obama’s record have a kind of rote quality. There’s nothing really substantive there, no attacks on any particular decisions Obama has made or initiatives he has undertaken. What it all consists of is the idea that Obama is weak, and “apologizes for America” (I’m not going to bother debunking that one again). But when Mitt goes off on that stuff, you can tell he’s just doing it to satisfy the Sean Hannitys of the world and assure the Republican base that yes, I hate him as much as you do, and now let’s talk about the economy.
That’s not working for Romney now, and Waldman sees him in over his head:
Romney’s foreign policy has always been about symbolism, words more than actions – showing resolve, not apologizing, and so on. So do he and the people around him actually believe that if the president juts his chin out and squints his eyes like Clint Eastwood, then some militant somewhere will say, “You know what? I’ve really come to respect America. I think I’m not going to bomb that embassy after all.”
Waldman thinks maybe they really do think that:
Sure, part of it is reflexive Republican campaigning – you call the Democrat a tax-and-spender, you say he wants to help lazy poor and black people at the expense of hard-working whites, and when it comes to foreign policy you say he’s weak and feckless. But I think they actually do believe that foreign policy is simple, and all that’s necessary to make everything work out to our advantage in every situation is to be strong and resolute.
Way back in 2006, Prospect alum Matt Yglesias termed this the “Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics” (the comic book hero Green Lantern gets his power from sheer force of will). It was George W. Bush’s guiding principle, then it got picked up by John McCain, and now Mitt Romney is its proponent.
And like many Republican ideas, it has a certain appeal until you actually have to apply it to a particular real-world situation, at which point it becomes obviously inane.
That’s rather harsh, but it was a week in which too much happened – the markets soared and the Middle East exploded, both knocking Mitt Romney off message. And the president was being all… presidential. There’s much to be said for being careful and calm and respectful, but firm, and at the end of the week there was the ceremony where the four caskets came home from Libya – serious, moving, solemn, elegiac and adult. It was no place for the Green Lantern. There may never be.