James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Campaign 2012 Roundup: Michigan Debate and Romney on Iran

by James M. Lindsay
November 10, 2011

Republican candidates at last night's primary debate in Michigan. (Rebecca Cook/courtesy Reuters)

Republican candidates at last night's primary debate in Michigan. (Rebecca Cook/courtesy Reuters)

Last night’s GOP presidential debate was primarily about the domestic economy. But it started off on a foreign policy note when lead moderator Maria Bartiromo asked what the United States should do to ensure that Italy’s mounting economic woes “do not take down  the U.S. financial system.” The responses were dismaying. Herman Cain said “we must grow the economy,” Mitt Romney said Europeans should “take care of their own problems,” Ron Paul talked about the need to “liquidate” debt, and Jon Huntsman worried that the United States has six banks that are “too big to fail.”

Why are these answers dismaying? Because they suggest that the GOP candidates are either hankering for a past that no longer exists, don’t understand the severity of the eurozone crisis, or don’t have any answers (at least ones they would share with voters) for addressing the crisis. There once was a day when things over there didn’t matter to life over here. But that day is long gone. Globalization, a process that both Republicans and Democrats have championed, means that financial markets are interconnected. If the eurozone collapses, the effects would ripple across the Atlantic, potentially becoming an economic tsunami. The losers wouldn’t just be bankers on Wall Street, but everyone on Main Street who has a 401(k) or an IRA. It’s not too much to hope that presidential candidates would have a clear idea on how to respond to a threat that could stop the American economy in its tracks.

Foreign policy came up again toward the end of the debate. A question about the wisdom of having a Chinese company build part of the Bay Bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco eventually led to Mitt Romney blasting Chinese trade policy:

China is playing by different rules. One, they are stealing intellectual property. Number two, they’re hacking into our computer systems, both government and corporate. And they are stealing, by virtue of that as well, from us.

And finally, they are manipulating their currency, and by doing so, holding down the price of Chinese goods, and making sure their products are artificially low-priced. It’s predatory pricing, it’s killing jobs in America.

If I’m president of the United States, I’m making it very clear, I love free trade. I want to open markets to free trade. But I will crack down on cheaters like China. They simply cannot continue to steal our jobs.

A President Romney would “crack down” on Beijing by labeling “China a currency manipulator” and applying tariffs “to make sure that they understand we are willing to play at a level playing field.” Romney, of course, has been hitting this theme for a while. It’s not one typically heard at Republican presidential debates; it would have been unthinkable for a GOP presidential candidate to make this argument just four years ago.

The more traditional Republican argument was made by Jon Huntsman who said that Romney’s  anti-China rhetoric was “pandering” to the voters and that Romney’s proposed actions would trigger a “trade war” that would hurt Americans. Huntsman admitted, though, that the U.S. relationship with China has been “troublesome and problematic” for forty years. His preferred solution was hardly inspiring, or even clear:

We’re just going to have to keep doing business the way we’ve always done, is sit down, you find solutions to the problems, and you move forward. It isn’t easy. It isn’t glamorous. It’s grinding it out the way we’ve done for 40 years. And for 40 more years, we’re going to have to do it the same way.

Don’t be surprised if Romney and Huntsman revisit this issue at Saturday night’s debate. The fact is both candidates are right. Many Chinese trade and currency policies are predatory, and trying to punish those practices could hurt an already fragile U.S. recovery. So you are left with a tough policy question: how do you get China to end its predatory practices without triggering retaliation that imposes significant costs on the U.S. economy?

Romney has an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal on Iran. He accuses Obama of a “shameful abdication of moral authority” by failing to side with the protesters during Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution. Romney says he will offer a “different policy”:

Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war.

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Only when the ayatollahs no longer have doubts about America’s resolve will they abandon their nuclear ambitions.

The problem with this formulation–besides the fact that unilateral American sanctions won’t do much of anything–is that the United States could do all the things that Romney suggests and still not dissuade Iran from going nuclear. Tehran might believe that all of Romney’s proposed measures are just huffing and puffing, or that a U.S. military strike will set its program back only temporarily. That may be a misguided conclusion, but history is rich with examples of countries misperceiving their opponents.

Besides contributing to the Journal, Romney issued a statement criticizing Obama for his open mic comments about Benjamin Netanyahu:

President Obama’s derisive remarks about Israel’s prime minister confirm what any observer would have gleaned from his public statements and actions toward our longstanding ally, Israel. At a moment when the Jewish state is isolated and under threat, we cannot have an American president who is disdainful of our special relationship with Israel. We have here yet another reason why we need new leadership in the White House.

HarperCollins has announced that it will release a new Romney biography entitled “The Real Romney” in January 2012—just as campaign season hits full speed. The authors are Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, two investigative reporters for the Boston Globe.

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