As the campaign season goes on, GOP nominee Mitt Romney finds himself in a tight situation, trailing President Barack Obama in nearly all of the issues. One weakness of his campaign, in particular, is the public's view of his capability to tackle foreign policy.
According to a Pew Research Center poll conducted between September 12 and 16, President Obama leads Romney in "dealing with problems in the Middle East" by 11 points, and in "making wise decisions on foreign policy" by 15 points. Similar point differences exist in three coveted swing states. On the question, "Regardless of how you intend to vote, who do you think would do a better job on foreign policy, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney?," Romney trails by 10, 13, and 16 points in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania respectively, according to a September 26 Quinnipiac University/CBS News/New York Times poll.
At a time when our country struggles to identify our goals in the Middle East, any presidential hopeful lagging in the polls would try to capitalize on the current state of affairs and persuade voters that his policies are in the best interests of America. Yet, when the opportunity presented itself to Romney, he unfortunately squandered it.
On Monday, the Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Romney, "A New Course for the Middle East," in which he argues that Obama's foreign policy "lacks resolve," and that Obama "has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability." In the piece, Romney cites the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, Syria's bloody stalemate, the Muslim Brotherhood's ascendance in Egypt, Israel-U.S. relations, and Iran's nuclear-weapons capabilities as major issues that Obama has failed to tackle properly.
While these may be valid arguments against Obama's foreign policy, Romney's op-ed struggles with two necessary aspects of a quality argument: inclusion of necessary facts and a coherent presentation of his own ideas. Without either, it's just rhetoric (e.g. "descends into chaos," and "pulled into the maelstrom") that doesn't amount to much substance.
In his op-ed, Romney tries to appeal to American exceptionalism, by launching into a discourse on "how we got here" (a.k.a. why the U.S. is waist-deep in Middle East issues). "Since World War II, America has been the leader of the Free World," he explains. "We're unique in having earned that role not through conquest but through promoting human rights, free markets and the rule of law. We ally ourselves with like-minded countries, expand prosperity through trade and keep the peace by maintaining a military second to none. But in recent years, President Obama has allowed our leadership to atrophy."
However, his explanation is very surface level and omits much. The reason for the U.S.'s involvement in the Middle East isn't solely as a result of Obama's foreign policy; it isn't even a result of President George W. Bush's "War on Terror." No, the U.S. has been involved in the Middle East for decades. Remember our involvement in the Gulf War in the early 1990s? Remember Operation Ajax, the coup on the prime minister of Iran where the U.S. reinstated the oppressive Shah of Iran in the 1950s? And remember that failed Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement in the 1940s? We've had years and years of meddling in the Middle East, not just during Obama's term.
The most egregious mistake of this essay, however, is its lack of novelty. Romney spent over half his essay telling readers what they already know: the Middle East faces many problems, that the U.S. is linked to many of them, and that we face challenges at home with our economy and rising national debt. Romney spends so much space rehashing that he doesn't even get to laying out the steps toward good foreign policy until the end of the piece. When he does get around to it, he writes simply, "But this Middle East policy will be undermined unless we restore the three sinews of our influence: our economic strength, our military strength and the strength of our values. That will require a very different set of policies from those President Obama is pursuing." (Yes, I'd assume that's why you're challenging him for president…) Romney's explanation is entirely too brief and without any clear indication of what initiatives he would like to implement as president to ease the tensions in the Middle East.
If he spent half as much time developing his own policy prescriptions as he did with his warnings about the inadequacies of his opponent's policies, perhaps he wouldn't be doing so poorly in the polls, at least on foreign policy. Instead, we simply get a statement like this: "We needed a strategy for success, but the president offered none."
Well, that's ironic.
Because, in this piece, neither did Romney.