Mitt Romney would “respect” Israel’s decision to take action on its own against Iran in order to stop the country from developing nuclear weapons? Dog bites man. Really, don’t be fooled: The statement by Mitt Romney’s foreign policy advisor Dan Senor this weekend is not news, at all.
Given the possible implications of the vague statement made by Senor at a press briefing in Jerusalem on Sunday, though, it’s not hard to see why it was taken as such and very eagerly reported. As BuzzFeed recounts, within hours, Senor’s words -- “If Israel has to take action on its own, in order to stop Iran from developing the capability, the governor would respect that decision,” sparked the Associated Press headline “Adviser: Romney would back strike against Iran” (carrying the implication the U.S. might provide forces to support such a strike), and Bloomberg’s “Romney Says He’d Back Unilateral Israeli Strike On Iran.”
The BuzzFeed piece goes on to note that an “international firestorm” built over the statements while most of Romney’s staff were either “asleep in Boston” or in meetings with Israeli leaders. Only after three hours was a statement released by Romney aids clarifying the nuanced distinction between “respect,” and “support:” "Gov. Romney believes we should employ any and all measures to dissuade the Iranian regime from its nuclear course, and it is his fervent hope that diplomatic and economic measures will do so … In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. Gov. Romney recognizes Israel's right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with it." In other words, no real firm commitment to anything. And that’s not exactly news, certainly not for those on either the left or the right who feel that the former Massachusetts governor strands for little, if anything, of real substance.
There is a substance in these vague statements, of course, and it is the substance of politics, the communication less so of policy particulars than of postures and personality, the more literal things that are called to mind by the expression “political stance.” Seeking to draw beneficial distinctions against President Obama, Romney’s campaign has followed the familiar line of Republican critiques of the Democrats’ foreign policy. Most millennials will probably recall the “John Kerry-is-weak-on-Defense” attack employed so successfully by the George W. Bush campaign and its supporters in 2004, and certainly the Republicans’ “Defeatocrats” meme of the latter half of the past decade. Even before the Republican presidential primaries for the 2012 election began, Romney sought to characterize Obama as a weak representative of American interests on the world stage with his book No Apology, which presents Obama’s foreign policy as apologizing for America’s actions. Most recently, Romney has repeatedly questioned the president’s commitment to Israel’s security and attacked his handling of Iran’s nuclear program.
Writing in Foreign Policy this past January, while the Republican primaries were still in motion, Michael A. Cohen argued that Iran provides the GOP hopefuls' the best avenue to portray Obama as weak on defense given factors such as Obama’s support for continued operations in Afghanistan until 2014 (“give war a chance”) and, of course, the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Cohen ended that piece on a cautionary note, warning of how the GOP candidates’ rhetoric might lock them into a position “that smacks of brinkmanship” should one win in November. If there is any news in the Romney campaign’s fudging of its Iran policy stance this weekend, it’s that for this particular GOP candidate, the concern about being locked into a position may not hold. But then again, given Romney’s reputation, that’s not really news either.