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« Game On! | Main | Romney's Surprise ? »

Romney’s October Surprise: A Prediction

By Peter Herbert
October 5, 2012

Great analysis, Darrell. Concerning the upcoming debates, I wonder: what is the much touted Romney foreign policy surprise going to be? Buzz on the Internet is that it will be a promise to bring back torture. If so, that hardly counts as a surprise, since all signs so far indicate that he plans to rely on former Bush/Cheney folks to run his foreign policy. (Sickeningly, experts on undecided voters say that a return to torture will appeal to many of them.)

I doubt the buzz. I predict that Romney will borrow a page from Nixon’s successful 1968 campaign: he will announce a grand plan to get us out of Afghanistan both sooner, and with greater success and honor, than Obama’s plan. The proposal will be thin on details, since those of course have to be secret (like the details of his economic plans). I further guess that he already has right wing generals and foreign policy people lined up and ready to say that it’s a great plan and they know how to get it done. Obviously, they will say that they would have won in Afghanistan already, if only Obama had let them. That is essentially what Nixon did in the 1968 election, regarding the Vietnam War. It got him elected. Whether it will work for Romney I don’t know. This election is far more about the economy and far less about foreign policy than 1968. But it is the best foreign policy shot the Romney Campaign can take.

Obama is more vulnerable on this than anything else: his surge in Afghanistan was a dismal failure by any measure, and neither he, nor anyone in his administration, has given a really good reason for staying in Afghanistan until late 2014, as they propose to do. Meanwhile, anyone who sometimes looks at the news has the (probably correct) impression that the prospect of achieving our goals in Afghanistan is becoming daily more hopeless.

We’ll see whether I’m right about what Romney will do. But I think that mine is a much better guess than the Internet rumor that he will promise more torture. For starters, the Romney campaign is trying to escape the (likely true) image of a Romney presidency as a third term for George W. Bush. If torture is Romney’s October surprise, then he will further cast himself in the Bush mold, and he will further galvanize the President’s base, which is so far less enthusiastic than in 2008. Second, our military officers and the national intelligence community – influential and mostly conservative constituencies – tend to hate torture, and they know that it is ineffective and typically counterproductive. Romney cannot afford to alienate such important likely supporters in this close election. Finally, a return to torture is for Romney a too unsurprising surprise to give much of a lift to his campaign. He needs something more dramatic.

On the other hand, if Romney’s surprise is the one I predict, then he will further demoralize Obama supporters, since none of us knows what the President hopes to accomplish in Afghanistan between now and late 2014, or how he proposes to accomplish it. At the same time, Romney can easily thrill his base with a promise to turn the situation in Afghanistan around quickly and dramatically, with an intense application of force, which will appeal to hawks – and incidentally a bolus of military spending, the only kind of government stimulus spending that tea partiers like.

If I am right, then Romney’s strategy will be a good one, politically, and it will be terrible for our real foreign policy if it is successful. Like Nixon, I suspect that Romney will have no real plan beyond turning the hawks loose to do a dramatic, short-term increase in the intensity, breadth, and clumsiness of the violence in and around Afghanistan – more “shock and awe,” a bigger “surge.” Like Nixon’s plan, Romney’s will accomplish nothing but cost many lives, much money, and more international good will. Nixon settled in 1972 for roughly the same peace deal the North Vietnamese offered in 1968 – the only important difference was that nearly 30,000 more Americans, and many times that number of Vietnamese, were dead. Despite his promises, he didn’t pull out of Vietnam (and then not really) until the last moment when he could still do so and still run for re-election as the candidate who “got us out of Vietnam.” Nevertheless, it was good politics. Nixon would have been re-elected if not for Watergate.

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