In his first major foreign policy address of the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney presented a largely neo-conservative platform similar to that pursued by George W. Bush, although he never mentioned the former president by name.
Speaking at The Citadel military academy in South Carolina, Romney promised to increase defence spending – and the size of the U.S. Navy – as part of a strategy designed to ensure that the United States remain the world's dominant military power and that the 21st century be "an American century".
"The United States should always retain military supremacy to deter would-be aggressors and to defend our allies and ourselves," he told the Citadel cadets. "And know this: If America is the undisputed leader of the world, it reduces our need to police a more chaotic world."
"…If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president," he said. "You have that president today," he said of Barack Obama whose policies of the last three years he characterised as "feckless".
"Know this," Romney went on in an implicit assertion of the kind of unilateralism which Bush extolled but which alienated even some of Washington's closest allies. "While America should work with other nations, we always reserve the right to act alone to protect our vital national interests."
Critical to those interests, he made clear, was the greater Middle East. He suggested that Washington should align itself even more closely to Israel – whose existence as a "Jewish state" he characterised as a "vital national interest" – and pursue a more confrontational policy toward Iran, including the regular deployment in the region of two aircraft carrier task forces as a "deterrent".
"I will again reiterate that Iran obtaining a nuclear weapons is unacceptable," he stressed, asserting also that "(i)n the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran's suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world."
He listed as the greatest threats to the U.S. interests "Islamic fundamentalism"; the ongoing struggle in the greater Middle East "between those who yearn for freedom and those who seek to crush it;" the "ripple effects of failed and failing states from (sic) which terrorists may find safe haven;" the "anti-American visions of regimes in Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, (and) Cuba;" and "rising nations with hidden and emerging aspirations like China, determined to be a world superpower, and a resurgent Russia…"
Romney spoke at the end of a week which saw two potential Republican rivals – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and the party's 2008 vice-presidential candidate, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin – take their names out of consideration. The rapid decline – due to a series of poor debate performances – of far-right Texas Gov. Rick Perry in the polls since he entered the race last month has made Romney the clear favourite for the party's nomination.
His speech also followed the release earlier this week of a list of his top foreign policy advisors, many, if not most, of whom are known for their neo-conservative and strongly pro-Israel views.
Remarkably, three of the top advisers – Eric Edelman, Robert Kagan, and Dan Senor – serve on the four-man board of directors of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), the ideological successor to the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), which may help to explain why Romney evoked the phrase "American Century" no less than five times in his speech. Both FPI and PNAC were co- founded by Kagan and Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol.
PNAC played a leading role in mobilising support for "regime change" in Iraq beginning in the late 1990s and spearheading the public post- 9/11 campaign for invading the country. Among the 27 people who signed its 1997 charter were some of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration, including Vice President Dick Cheney and his deputy, I. Lewis Libby; Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz; and Bush's top Mideast aide, Elliott Abrams.
While those names were absent from the list of advisers released by the Romney campaign, many of their trusted aides or ideological fellow-travelers in the Bush administration figured prominently.
These include Edelman and Senor, who served under Rumsfeld; former State Department counter-terrorism chief and Blackwater director, Cofer Black; former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff; former CIA director Michael Hayden; and former high-ranking State Department officials Paula Dobriansky, Mitchell Reiss, Robert Joseph, Stephen Rademaker, Kim Holmes, and Eliot Cohen. Dobriansky, Friedberg, Cohen and another Romney adviser, Vin Weber, also signed the 1997 PNAC charter.
Other key advisers are associated more with the realist wing of the Republican Party, notably Dov Zakheim, who also served under Rumsfeld, and Mitchell Reiss, former State Department policy planning chief who, however, has joined several neo-conservatives in a campaign to remove the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an Iraq-based Iranian rebel group, from the State Department's terrorism list.
Yet another adviser, Walid Phares of the neo-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is controversial for his past ties to the militant Phalange movement in Lebanon.
The neo-conservative influence was, in any event, made clear in Romney's speech, which, in addition to its often messianic tone, repeatedly celebrated U.S. "exceptionalism" and the necessity for a new "American Century".
"I'm here today to tell that I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion," he told cadets in the audience. "This century must be an American Century."
"God did not create this country to be a nation of followers," he declared. "America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers. America must lead the world, or someone else will."
While Romney gave lip service to the importance of "soft power", particularly in regard to dealing with the so-called "Arab Spring", his most specific proposal was to increase shipbuilding from nine to 15 ships a year and to keep at least 11 aircraft carrier groups deployed year round, as well as increase spending on a "multi-layered national ballistic missile defence system".
In other speeches, Romney has proposed devoting at least four percent of U.S. GDP to the Pentagon's base budget, a proposal that would, according to some estimates, increase defence spending by about 14 percent.
That drew strong criticism from Steve Clemons, founder of the American Strategy Programme at the New America Foundation, who called the speech "depressingly conventional in the sense that he looks at the Pentagon as the source of the country's strength and talks about the economy almost as an afterthought."
"Thirty years ago, the U.S. had a third of the world's GDP and a third of what the world spent on defence," he told IPS. "Now we have just over 20 percent of the world's GDP and we account for about half of global military expenditures. This kind of approach not only fails to secure America's long-term security interest, but also undermines our economic solvency."
Aaron David Miller, a former diplomat and Mideast specialist at the Wilson Center here, compared the speech to Bush's first term. "He can get America into a lot of trouble with tough talk, no strategy, and a failure to understand the world in which we live," Miller said. "We saw that movie in 2003. No sequels please."
Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.