When Americans go to the polls to elect a president, they most often have domestic issues on their minds despite the fact that the constitutional duties of the presidency concern mostly international policy, foreign affairs, and national security. Being commander in chief of our military and intelligence apparatus is the most awesome responsibility of the office because wrong decisions get people killed. Mitt Romney has talked tough on national security policy throughout his campaign, most recently in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute. Despite the tough talk, Romney lacks the military and national security experience which being commander in chief requires.
Romney never served in the military, though he does assert he wished he had during Vietnam. In fact, no Romney has served in uniform for America in the last century. His great-grandfather and grandfather lived on missions in Mexico and Utah. His father did not serve. Mitt Romney himself received multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War while he was a college student and a missionary in France. None of Gov. Romney’s five sons has served either.
It isn’t hard to understand why he didn’t want to go. His father’s views on the war likely influenced him. In 1967, George Romney ruined his chances of being the GOP’s presidential candidate by reversing his support for the war and coming out against it, claiming to have been "brainwashed" into supporting it by the military on a trip to Vietnam in 1965. This and a general inability to articulate clear foreign policy largely led to George Romney fading away from the 1968 GOP presidential race despite national popularity.
Mitt Romney seems to share his father’s inability to articulate clear national security policy. However, he has been careful to avoid his father’s mistakes by not opposing any wars. He seems to be in favor of all of them. Romney has often taken rhetorically hawkish stances. The list of his foreign policy advisors is a list of Bush-era neocons. He opposed withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan as well, but has come to support it on largely the same timetable as President Obama. But he has often been unclear or silent on national security issues at key times, such as in his speech to the Republican National Convention and his VMI speech — both of which received lukewarm reviews.
In the speech, Romney criticized the president for the death of U.S. diplomats in Libya, for not aiding anti-regime protesters in Iran, for not intervening in Syria, and for not "shaping" events in places like Egypt and Yemen. What Romney doesn’t understand, or hopes the American people won’t realize, is that "shaping" events as he claims he would have, would lead to further and deeper U.S. military and intelligence community entanglement in the Middle East. At a time when the overwhelming majority of Americans clearly does not want the U.S. to become involved in new wars, Mitt Romney criticizes the president for not doing so and promises that he will.
There is a difference between what the U.S. would like to achieve in foreign affairs and what it can achieve. Mitt Romney claims he will achieve policy goals in the Middle East that no modern president, Republican or Democrat, has been able to achieve using a range of different means, from diplomacy and economic incentives to embargoes and invasions. Criticizing a president for the occurrence of foreign events outside of their control is equivalent to Congress passing a law telling the French they cannot smoke on the streets of Paris and criticizing it for not working. The U.S. cannot control international events of other sovereign states and trying to "shape" them can cause more harm than good. These are the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. A President Romney trying to control events in the Middle East, using military force as the primary tool, will lead to a new quagmire in the region.
And this is why it matters that Mitt Romney never served in the military. The burden of his unrealistic, underdeveloped foreign and national security policies, informed by a political will not to appear ‘soft’ and escape the mistakes of his father, will have to be borne by the U.S. military. Romney has no personal experience or understanding of the burden of sending troops into combat because he has never been in that position himself.
It is not enough to have sympathy or respect for those who have gone to war. The man that puts soldiers into that position cannot adequately weigh the need versus the cost unless that same scale once contained a pound of his own flesh to be weighed up by someone else. A man who has never done that is unable to understand the full gravity of his decision to those who go. Not understanding the costs leads to a false weighing of consequences and capabilities, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us.
It is not a requirement of the Constitution that presidents serve. America doesn’t have mandatory military service. Serving in uniform is not for everyone, nor should it be required. Those that perform functions that do not have a national security element don’t require the experience. However, a person applying for the job of commander in chief requires some form of national security experience. Lacking this experience, they had better have a very good argument as to how they can compensate for it. Presidents don’t have to serve, but it makes good sense that they do.
The counter-argument by former Gov. Romney is that President Obama never served in the military either. True, but this is not 2008 and Romney is not Sen. John McCain. Romney and President Obama are not on equal footing. The president has four years of national security experience as commander in chief — four more years than Romney can claim. President Obama is also not making speeches in support of multiple new U.S. military interventions in the Middle East and has arguably had several impressive military successes during his first term.
It matters that Mitt Romney did not serve in the military. His foreign and national security policies would send thousands of U.S. troops into harm’s way once again. Having never volunteered or had his life risked for the country by someone else, he cannot truly and honestly weigh the consequences between the need and the cost. This would matter less if he weren’t advocating policy that will send American troops to war in order to work. But that is what he is doing and that is why it matters.