Was Romney right?

800px-Mitt_Romney_laughing_at_rallySupporters of Mitt Romney have pointed out that Romney claimed during the 2012 election campaign that Russia was the greatest geo-political threat to the US. Was Romney right? His stance, after all, put him totally at odds with the last two American presidents. President Obama mocked him for his view in the presidential debate saying “the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back”. President Bush said he looked Vladimir Putin in the eye and found him to be straightforward and trustworthy, though also added that Putin was “a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.”  On the second point, Bush was certainly right.

Romney’s point was nuanced, and Obama brushed over the subtleties in scoring points. Obama expressed astonishment that Romney had named Russia not al-Qaeda, but Romney was drawing a distinction between a geo-political foe – a global rival for world power – and a national security threat. He named Iran, not Russia, as America’s greatest national security threat. He may have been wrong about that. In Iraq and Syria, American and Iranian interests are actually converging at the moment, though Iran is still pursuing nuclear weapons.

Romney’s position also aligned him with the much-mocked Sarah Palin who, during the 2008 election claimed that Barack Obama’s weakness in the face of Russian aggression in Georgia would encourage Russia to invade Ukraine, if Obama was elected president. This position was ridiculed by the Obama campaign, and the foreign policy establishment. Foreign Policy magazine described this at the time as “an extremely far-fetched scenario”. In a grudging blog the magazine now concedes she was right “sort of” – the “sort of” apparently indicates that it thinks she was right because she was stupid and lucky.

So were Romney – and more improbably, Palin – right all along and have the last two presidents both been wrong about Putin? Yes, and no.

Palin’s message was part of a longer positioning of Obama as being weak on national security in which she sketched out several possible catastrophes. Her point was not so much that Russia was a threat but that Obama was temperamentally ill-equipped to handle threats. She was right about that too, but not through any particularly skillful insight into the nature of the threats the US faced. 

Romney’s analysis of the situation was much more clearly thought through. Does that mean that Obama and Bush were both naïve about Putin? The potentially naïve statements from both men were made while they served as president. Putin came to power just before Bush did, so much of the world’s experience of him has been while these two presidents have been in the White House. A president is necessarily more measured in his words about a geo-political rival than is a candidate for office, though Obama’s mockery of Romney was plainly ridiculous.

If, by 2012, Obama suspected that Putin was becoming ever-more expansionist and might become aggressive in Ukraine, it would not have been sensible for him to predict it. It would have been much more useful to try to prevent it. 

Of course, there are different views as to how it might have been prevented. Would a more assertive American president have successfully warned off Russia? This president has, clearly, been very weak, but I am not sure that any credible policy would have kept Russia out of Ukraine. 

qlQuentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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