Our foreign policy debate makes no sense.
At last week’s town hall, the only foreign policy question, on the attack in Libya, devolved into a dispute over how long it took President Obama to call it terrorism. That isn’t even the sixth most important question about Libya, let alone the rest of the world. Obama’s semantic choice was only at issue because Romney made a point of bringing it up, a seemingly odd choice when there’s a wealth of actually substantive arguments he could have made in response to Crowley’s question. Did Romney think the best way to score points with voters was proving Obama didn’t say the magic T word?
As it happens, yes. A survey of Romney’s foreign policy positions reveals an elevation of word choice and symbolism to totemic status; a basic assumption that the way the President speaks and presents himself is a principal determinant of American policy success. If you presuppose that, then it matters a great deal whether Obama chose to call the Benghazi attack terrorism, as refusing the label would lead to an inability to respond to the attacks as such. And it’s more than that – understanding why Romney thinks language is so important is the key to explaining why so many of this year’s foreign policy debates have seen so petty.
This fetishization of linguistic argument pervades Romney campaign arguments on foreign policy. He chastises Obama on Israel not for specific policies, but rather for having the temerity to say critical things about its government in public. He won’t explain how, specifically, Obama could’ve been harsher on Iran beyond rhetorical posturing and more strident remarks supporting the 2009 uprising. His Afghanistan message is that we should withdraw in 2014, but the administration was wrong to say that publicly. Romney blasts Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Russia, but doesn’t have much in the way of a specific alternative approach except stronger public criticism of Russian policy. Ditto with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. This pattern repeats on issue after issue after issue — Romney won’t commit to significant policy differences with the administration, but will happily propose to “project strength, not weakness” and end “appeasement” by shifting American rhetoric on the issue in question.