Mitt Romney's major speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute Monday was long on style but remarkably short on substance. On the unrest in the Middle East, Israel, Iran, Syria and relations with China, the GOP challenger was quick to criticize President Barack Obama for his alleged failure "to shape history" in America's image. Yet aside from such rhetorical flourishes, the most striking thing about Mr. Romney's own policy prescriptions was how little they differed from what the Obama administration is already doing. If Mr. Romney has big new ideas on the conduct of U.S. policy abroad, we're still waiting to hear them.
Mr. Romney attacked the president for not supporting the democratic forces in unleashed by the Arab Spring against dictators and Islamic extremists. He criticized the administration's reluctance to arm Syria's rebels against the Assad government and faulted Mr. Obama's troop withdrawal from Iraq for allowing a resurgence of al-Qaida there. On Iran, he suggested the U.S. could halt the country's drive for a bomb by an overwhelming show of military force, and he denounced the Obama administration for throwing Israel under the bus by not backing up its threat to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
But what would Mr. Romney do differently if he were president? On that, the candidate had little more than ringing phrases and vague generalities to offer. He said he would arm Syria's rebels with the kind of heavy weaponry they needed to defeat the Assad regime. What he didn't say was how he would ensure those weapons — including the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles needed to bring down government helicopters and jets — won't fall into the hands of al-Qaida-linked militants within the opposition. The prospect of terrorists using such weapons to bring down an airline passenger jet is one of the main reasons the Obama administration has been reluctant to supply the rebels with such missiles.
Likewise, Mr. Romney says the U.S. should have done more to support liberals and democrats during the uprising in Egypt that deposed long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak and enabled the rise of an Islamist government led by the Muslim Brotherhood. But the U.S. did use its considerable influence over the Egyptian military to push reforms that led to that country's first free democratic elections in 5,000 years, and it continues to support non-governmental organizations there that are working to build a strong civil society in which democracy can take root. The U.S. can promote democracy abroad, and it did, but that doesn't mean it can dictate who wins at the polls.
On Iran, Mr. Romney seems to think if the U.S. was more aggressive in the region, the mullahs in Tehran would be cowed into surrender. Nothing in recent history suggests that would be the case. The Obama administration has crafted an international alliance that has imposed the most stringent economic sanctions in history on Iran, backed by the threat of military action, in order to force it to the bargaining table. The sanctions are beginning to bite — last week Iran's currency lost 30 percent of its value against the dollar — and there are two carrier battle groups patrolling the region.
What more would Mr. Romney do short of a military strike — still the worst option even if it becomes necessary — to get the Iranians to stop enriching uranium? "We must make clear to Iran through actions — not just words — that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated," he says. But what more actions can we take, short of air strikes?
Finally, on Israel, America's closest ally in the region, and the threat posed to it by Iran, Mr. Romney said "the world must never see any daylight between our nations." But does that mean Mr. Romney thinks Israel should be able to dictate U.S. policy or that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should be able to goad America into a military strike? Surely he would be no more eager than President Obama to let the tail wag the dog. Israel and the U.S. both have a strategic interest in preventing Iran from getting a bomb, but no U.S. president wants to get dragged into a war prematurely by an ally.
On all these issues, Mr. Romney seems to think that all the United States has to do is show its muscle and the world will obediently comply with its wishes. But that's not the way the real world works; we learned that during the Bush administration. Mr. Romney claims the U.S. needs action, not words, to reclaim its leadership position among nations, but so far all he has offered is to speak louder and carry the same big stick.