A couple of years ago, as debate over the New START nuclear treaty was intensifying, Mitt Romney decided to weigh in on the debate with an op-ed, hoping to demonstrate some acumen on international affairs. It didn't go well. Fred Kaplan wrote at the time, "In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and -- let's not mince words -- thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney's attack on the New START treaty."
Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), arguably the Republican Party's most respected voice on foreign policy, issued "an unusually harsh statement," calling Romney out for his nonsense.
Two years later, Romney isn't done pretending he deserves a seat at the big-kids' table. After President Obama signaled yesterday his intention to negotiate with Russia on missile defense in a second term, the former governor was indignant.
The key quote in the clip was Romney arguing, in reference to Russia, "[T]his is without question our number one geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that [President Obama] has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed."
For one thing, Obama didn't talk about more flexibility for Russia; he talked about more flexibility for himself, urging Russian leaders to be patient until after the election season. There's a big difference between the two.
For another, calling Russia the nation's "number one geopolitical foe" has renewed a debate over whether Romney understands these issues as well as he thinks he does.
The Democratic National Committee, for example, distributed this statement from former Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig:
"Governor Romney offered his judgment today that Russia is our nation's number one geopolitical foe. This conclusion, as outdated as his ideas on the economy, energy needs, and social issues, is left over from the last century. Does Governor Romney believe that a Cold War foreign policy is the right course in the twenty-first century? Does he believe that Russia is a bigger threat to the U.S. today than terrorism, or cyberwarfare, or a nuclear-armed and erratic North Korea?
"Oddly, before calling Russia our number one foe, he issued a foreign policy white paper that only got around to Russia after sections on China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Middle East, Iran, North Korea, and Latin America. His most recent statement is yet another revelation that Mitt Romney repeatedly speaks inconsistently and in ways that are disconnected from twenty-first century realities."
The white-paper Danzig mentions referred to a 42-page foreign policy prospectus released by the Romney campaign, which ignored Russia -- our so-called "number one geopolitical foe" -- for the first 34 pages.
But wait, there's more.
Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the National Security Network, published a good piece noting that yesterday's comments help show "how uncomfortable Romney is on national security issues."
Were I asked to choose America's number one geopolitical foe, I'd answer these questions:
1) Who has killed the most Americans in the past decade? (That would be nationalist and Islamist movements in countries we've invaded coming in at #1; Al Qaeda and its affiliates at #2; Iran at a distant #3 and perhaps even #4 behind nationalist and Islamist movements emanating from Pakistan.)
2) Who has the greatest ability to harm our economy and way of life -- the foundations of our strength? (China, no contest; then maybe the Saudis?)
3) Who has the greatest ability and shown the greatest willingness to frustrate our key geopolitical aims? (Given that Russia has gone along with some of our Iran sanctions, facilitated our continuing presence in Afghanistan, and avoided using its energy wealth to pressure our European allies during their economic weakness, I'd vote for either China or the emerging powers writ large here.)
4) Who has not just capabilities but intentions to foil continued progress toward a more integrated, more democratic, more free and prosperous (free civilly, socially and economically) world -- which is, ultimately, what most benefits the United States? (C'mon, the Russians are pikers in this category.)
In geopolitical terms, Russia has three things which pose significant problems for the US -- its energy, its nuclear weapons and its Security Council seat. Ironically, Mitt Romney is on record opposing just about everything we can do to reduce the salience of both.
I can appreciate why the Romney campaign would try to make Obama's "hot mic" story interesting, but the problem is the former governor just doesn't have any real policy chops in this area. He's out of his depth, and struggles when the subject takes center stage.
It's not just that Romney is uninformed; it's that he hasn't figured out how to fake it.