The case for vagueness

Mitt Romney often gets dinged for putting very little meat on the bones of his foreign policy, and Monday was no exception -- one of the dominant themes of his critics is that his big Virginia Military Institute address offered very few spefic clues as to what he'd do differently than Barack Obama.

But so what? Putting aside the moral question of whether American voters have a right to know what they're buying, why should Romney offer any specifics that the Obama campaign will just attack anyway? It makes sense for him to be vague now so that he can maximize his flexibility while in office -- and avoid damaging intraparty smackdowns on foreign policy while's he's trying to win an election. I doubt in any case that voters would punish him for not offering the sorts of wonkish, nuanced positions on Laotian trade tariffs and the frozen Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that Washington foreign-policy hands tend to demand.

That said, Romney has offered more specifics than many of his critics will let on. He's promising to see that the Syrian rebels get their hands on weapons they can use to take out Bashar al-Assad's planes and helicopters. He's vowing to stop Iran from having the capability to develop nuclear weapons, vice Obama's promise to stop Iran from weaponizing. He's not going to re-invade Iraq. And he's more or less conceded that Obama's 2014 withdrawal date in Afghanistan is appropriate.

These are actually fairly significant matters of war and peace we're talking about here, and Romney has been just about as forthcoming as any nominee would be in his position.


Did Mitt Romney just rehabilitate George Marshall?

One towering American historical figure played a key role in Mitt Romney's foreign-policy address at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) on Monday: VMI graduate George Marshall. The Republican candidate noted that as Army chief of staff during World War II and later as secretary of state and secretary of defense, Marshall had helped "vanquish fascism and then planned Europe's rescue from despair." He wove Marshall's contributions into his narrative about the "struggle between liberty and tyranny" taking place in the Middle East and the need for American leadership in the region:

We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values, and prevent today's crises from becoming tomorrow's conflicts.

Statesmen like Marshall rallied our nation to rise to its responsibilities as the leader of the free world. We helped our friends to build and sustain free societies and free markets. We defended our friends, and ourselves, from our common enemies. We led. And though the path was long and uncertain, the thought of war in Europe is as inconceivable today as it seemed inevitable in the last century....

Sir Winston Churchill once said of George Marshall: "He ... always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement, and disillusion." That is the role our friends want America to play again. And it is the role we must play. 

Most of us have heard about the general's Marshall Plan for war-torn Europe. But what's less known -- and perhaps of interest to Romney, who's employed aggressive rhetoric against China -- is that, during the same period, Marshall faced withering criticism from figures such as Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur for the 1945-1947 Marshall Mission, a failed effort to mediate China's civil war between the Nationalists and Communists, which Mao Zedong's forces ultimately won. In the early 1950s, as Republicans blamed Democrats for "losing China" to communism, McCarthy and MacArthur pointed fingers at Marshall and the Truman administration. 

"It was one of the greatest blunders in American diplomatic history for which the free world is now paying in blood and disaster and will in all probability continue to do so indefinitely," MacArthur wrote in 1951, in reference to the Marshall Mission. He accused Marshall, who, as secretary of state, had opposed U.S. military intervention in the Chinese Civil War, of weakening the Nationalists by using "the potential of American assistance as a weapon" in trying to force the two sides to form a coalition government. 

McCarthy was even harsher during a Senate speech several days later. Warning of "a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man," he turned to Marshall:

It was Marshall, with [Dean] Acheson and [John Carter] Vincent eagerly assisting, who created the China policy which, destroying China, robbed us of a great and friendly ally, a buffer against the Soviet imperialism with which we are now at war.

It was Marshall who, after long conferences with Acheson and Vincent, went to China to execute the criminal folly of the disastrous Marshall mission....

It was Marshall who, disregarding [General Albert Coady] Wedemeyer's advices on the urgent need for military supplies, the likelihood of China's defeat without ammunition and equipment, and our "moral obligation" to furnish them, proposed instead a relief bill bare of military support.

McCarthyism, of course, was later discredited, but not before McCarthy's positions forced Dwight Eisenhower to remove a tribute to Marshall, his mentor, during a 1952 campaign speech in Wisconsin.  

All this isn't to say that Romney shouldn't have made Marshall's work an organizing theme in his address. But it does speak to the ironies of the GOP candidate invoking the statesman's legacy. Romney, for instance, demanded that the United States confront China's "assertiveness" (Republicans accused Marshall of appeasing Beijing), pledged to arm the Syrian rebels (the GOP slammed Marshall for not assisting the Chinese Nationalists militarily), promised to "reaffirm our historic ties to Israel" (Marshall urged Truman not to support a Jewish state), and called for conditioning U.S. aid to Egypt on the country's government embracing democracy and maintaining its peace treaty with Israel (in announcing the Marshall Plan, which did call for economic reforms in exchange for U.S. aid, Marshall declared that "our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos").

As former Clinton administration speechwriter Heather Hurlburt put it today, Marshall's career was characterized by a "nuanced blend of diplomacy and strength." Some might argue that those nuances didn't make it into Romney's speech.

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