Mitt Romney and the lure of neo-imperialism

Mitt Romney’s stance on Iran is nothing new, but his embracement of neo-imperialist foreign policy is worrying.

Mitt Romney sees himself in a role analogous to that of Ronald Reagan [GALLO/GETTY]
Mitt Romney sees himself in a role analogous to that of Ronald Reagan [GALLO/GETTY]

Washington, DC – It would be easy to dismiss Mitt Romney’s Washington Post op-ed of this past week regarding US policy towards Iran as yet more self-serving blather in a political season already rife with it. No doubt, many who read the Republican presidential candidate’s harsh criticism of President Obama’s Iran policy were inclined to think so, and there were many obvious reasons why they should.

First was the former Massachusetts governor’s somewhat imaginative account of the reasons for the Iranians’ release of the US embassy hostages some 30 years ago, on the day of President Reagan’s inauguration. In Romney’s telling, the Iranian government, having toyed with the “feckless” Jimmy Carter for 444 days, was so impressed with the transparently steely resolve of the incoming former state governor and movie actor that it preemptively capitulated, rather than incur his wrath. Precisely how the Iranians were so prescient, given that Reagan had uttered not a word of public criticism of his predecessor’s policy on the hostages, is unexplained.

Candidate Romney, though, sees himself in a role analogous to that of his Republican idol, himself also called to save the US from the depredations of Persia’s rogue ayatollahs. Only now, rather than merely saving incarcerated diplomats, this latter-day Reagan has received a higher calling, to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. How will he do it?  Why, by showing “resolve”. From his own account, he’d better show a lot of it, for if he doesn’t, these “Islamic fanatics”, the very ones who took our diplomats hostage, mind, will set about putting nuclear bombs into the hands of terrorists and otherwise trying mightily to annihilate Israel. Or so he would have us believe.

A new policy?

Serious stuff, this. And yet not so serious, according to Romney, as to have concentrated the mind of Barack Obama, that born-again Jimmy Carter, who simply hasn’t had the gumption to match his rhetoric with effective policy.

So, what specific policies does the Republican presidential pretender suggest to back up his own frothy rhetoric? Well, he proposes “ever-tightening sanctions”. One wonders if they’ve thought of that in the White House. Not only that, the would-be president would speak out for democracy – another new idea – and “support Iranian dissidents”, apparently oblivious of the fact that there would be no faster way to discredit such dissidents. Perhaps he has the already long-discredited Mujahedin-e Khalq in mind. And an unmistakably earnest indication of his “absolute” commitment to Israel’s security? Why, he’d shock the Iranians by … visiting Jerusalem.

Ah, but fear not: Governor Romney would buttress this soft programme of sanctions and symbols with a genuine “military option” – not promises, mind you; not red-lines, but options. Those “options” would include some real blockbusters. Romney would increase military assistance to Israel, though short of turning over the 5th and 6th fleets outright, it would be hard to imagine how he would outdo his predecessors in that regard. In addition to keeping an aircraft carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf, as has been the case almost constantly for years now, the Massachusetts Republican would add another, permanently in the eastern Mediterranean. Oh, and he would “improve coordination” with allies in the region. Goodness. Those should certainly set clerical knees knocking in Tehran.

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The bald fact of the matter is that there is not a proverbial dime’s worth of difference between the Iran policy approaches of the putative leading Republican contender for the presidency and the current inhabitant of the White House, and we should all be glad of it. Neither wishes to rush into war, though the vigour of their competitive political pandering could still trap whichever of them is sitting in the oval office on January 20 2013 into doing just that.

Touting neo-imperialism

But there are aspects of Romney’s recent partisan screed concerning Iran which go well beyond mere politically inspired mendacity and which suggest a dangerous underlying orientation. For if the presidency of Barack Obama represents an effort to achieve a “post-imperial” foreign policy orientation for the United States, Mitt Romney wishes self-consciously to counter it with a “neo-imperialist” one.

Romney appears to espouse a fantasy held by many, particularly on the conservative right in the US, which holds that the foreign policy approach which, at least in their own romanticised and nostalgic view of recent history, caused the US to prevail in the Cold War with the Soviet Union is also the formula for US leadership and dominance in the multi-polar, post-cold war world which has followed. As one who is himself a believer in the vigorous, if judicious use of US power in the world, I can understand the appeal of such blandishments. The champions and purveyors of this line, however, could not be more mistaken.

It may be comforting for some to believe that all the US must do to bring the Irans of the world to heel is to show “strength” and “resolve”. Though they might not characterise it that way, they betray the naïve view – reflected in Romney’s outburst concerning Iran – that US leadership can succeed if it consists of equal parts overwhelming military power, bluster, unrepentant chauvinism and threat. In fact, for all the criticism directed toward the United States, both deserved and undeserved, hardly a day goes by without some indication that there is, in fact, a widespread desire in the world for responsible US leadership. To be effective, however, such leadership must be based not just on strength, but on wisdom, on a clear-eyed appreciation of the limits of power and on an understanding that a critical component of leadership is the ability and the willingness to appeal to the perceived self-interest of those affected by it. Failure to understand and to act on that basis is but a provocation and an invitation to those, such as Iran, who feel threatened by a constellation of forces beyond their control and who are therefore motivated to develop the asymmetric means to address those threats.

The fact that Mitt Romney is willing to pander so shamelessly to the ill-informed prejudices of the US right concerning Iran is troubling. But indications that he may, in fact, embrace their neo-imperialist world view is, if anything, more troubling still.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

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