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The Good, the Bad, and the Schmaltzy
on March 15, 2010
During the endless presidential debates of 2007-2008, Mitt Romney stood out from the Republican crowd. Here was the former governor of the Liberal state of Massachusetts, the man who, when campaigning in 1994 said he had been "An Independent during Reagan-Bush". A former pro-choice candidate, he now ran as a hyper conservative Republican. Romney seemed an opportunist in the best sense of the word - a moderate, pragmatic Republican dressing up as an ultra conservative. Among the Republicans who have a realistic chance of winning the 2012 nomination, Romney seems like the most appealing option. So, although I rarely read books by politicians, I ordered Romney's, curious to know what he's got to say.
Romney writes well, and manages to communicate complicated ideas intelligently. He has to walk a fine line between policy discussions and public appeals, and hits a good balance. The book is however frequently overly sentimental , especially when Romney goes into one of his periodic paeans to American brilliance, goodness, and beauty.
The best aspect of "No Apology" is Romney's discussion of the US economy and related issues such as health care and the environment. He skillfully makes the case for "creative destruction" (i.e. market competition) and free trade. I particularly liked his acknowledgement of the costs of free trade to workers who lose their jobs -Romney's descriptions of his encounters with laid-off people, recognizing the ill effects of unemployment on people's self worth and dignity, is genuinely moving. Romney actually makes his case not by ignoring the downside, but by weighing benefits against cost. He also makes a very sensible point about America's need to liberalize its immigration policy in order to ensure that well educated foreigners who study in the US stay and contribute locally, rather than leave after having studied in America.
His points about regulation, taxation and the 2008-2009 bailouts are more open to question and less detailed, but exhibit the same awareness of the pros and cons of various positions. His criticism of the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats is exaggerated, but not overall implausible. He offers interesting approaches to the government's debt problems. The chapter on health care reform, while interesting, fails to discuss in detail the various healthcare bills promoted by the Obama administration and its allies. One suspects close scrutiny would show that they are more similar to the plan Romney instituted in Massachusetts than he'd care to admit. Perhaps most surprisingly, and despite his best efforts to disguise the fact, Romney is in favor of taxes on carbon emissions! Overall, while I don't agree with everything Romney says about these issues, he comes across as a thoughtful, pragmatic and non-doctrinaire Republican.
Unfortunately, the other parts of the book are far less impressive. The chapter on morality and culture is merely fluff; Romney briefly notes his opposition to same-sex marriage, abortion, and activist judges, and then goes on endlessly about the importance of work, the family and the American way.
More troubling are the earlier chapters, the ones about foreign policy. They showcase a politician prone to cliché, to vilification of the current administration coupled with the white washing of the previous one, and perhaps most important, a politician without any ideas of how to deal with the world's complex problems.
Have you ever read a sentence more cliché than "No nation has shed more blood for more noble causes than the United States" (p.33)? How do you prove or disprove this bizarre assertion? The Soviet Union lost many more men fighting Nazi Germany than the US has. Was its cause weaker because it has been invaded by Nazi Germany first? But America was attacked by Japan, and Hitler had first declared war on the United States, not vice versa. In general I find the arithmetic of blood shedding gruesome. Do you count in absolute numbers or in percentages? If the former, does it amounts to the fact of America being a big country? And how do you account for blood spilled for ignoble causes? Do you deduct it from blood spilled for good causes (thus reaching "net blood")? What do you do with wars fought for a combination of noble and ignoble causes? Etc, etc...
Romney's main argument regarding foreign policy is that the Obama administration strengthens America's enemies and weakens its allies. If the book's title means anything, it is an attack on Obama's "apology tour", apologizing for American crimes, real and imagined. Romney strangely paints Obama as breaking with 50 years of strategic planning. That's absurd and over the top criticism of a stylistic device, which has helped shore up support for the United States in such mostly friendly countries as France, the UK, and Germany, while having little or no effect on the likes of Venezuela, Iran or Turkey. Romney is upset that Hugo Chavez and Muamar Qaddafi have praised Obama. But Chavez has revoked all of the praise he has dashed out early on, while Muamar Qaddafi is now a Western ally, albeit a capricious and eccentric one. Indeed, normalizing relationship with Libya is the one Middle Eastern accomplishment of the George W. Bush administration, and it is strange to see Romney disparaging it in order to score a cheap debating point.
All the criticism of Obama's foreign policy strikes me as remarkably unbalanced, given the lack of almost any criticism of the policies of George W. Bush. Whatever ill effects Obama's policies had on America's relationship with its allies, those are nowhere near the scale of the rift caused by the Bush Administration (remember "Freedom Fries", "Old Europe" and "Cheese-Eating-Surrender-Monkeys"?), and Obama has not plunged America into two unwinnable wars. Criticizing Obama's foreign policies is like berating your daughter for scratching your car while ignoring your son's scorching down the house.
Romney's ideas about how to reform America's foreign policy are nothing to write home about. He wants to emulate the regional division of the world which President Truman instituted in the US Army, and make sure that there's one official responsible for American diplomacy in any region of the world. This is unlikely to work: the system has hardly been a panacea for America's military: consider the military failures in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia and (arguably) Iraq. Furthermore, US diplomacy is far more complicated than America's military operations, involving a host of issues (trade, economic issues, political issues, peace keeping, etc), as well as cross-nation effects (America needs Chinese and Russian cooperation in imposing sanctions on Iran, for example), so that policy towards any country would necessarily be beyond the responsibility of any one official.
Romney wants to increase US Military spending (p.32). But what for? None of the conflicts in the world today are likely to be resolvable mostly by force. A military attack on Iran is probably not a great idea, but even if it was, it's politically undoable and Romney doesn't suggest it. So, beyond the existing battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq where exactly will this massive army be deployed? Romney argues that the expenditures should be 4% of GDP, rather than 3.8% as it is today. But he never tells us how he got this number. Why not go back to the 6% it was during the Cold War? More generally, Romney argues that "America's greatness" and "America's power" requires that the US will keep its military superiority over the Chinese. This is folly; The Chinese economy is growing much faster than America's economy, and this is unlikely to change, because China is a lot poorer than America: it's catching up. China's economy will exceed America's GDP long before it'll approach its GDP per capita. Why would America want to engage in an Arms Race it is bound to lose?
In the book's final chapter, Romney wonders, in effect, how any reasonable American could be a Democrat. His discussion of this question mysteriously fails to mention the war in Iraq or the mess the Bush administration has made of America's economy. Romney's willful amnesia to one side, much of what Romney says about America's economic issues makes sense, and very little of it is utterly loony. If he would rethink his foreign policy views and tone down his culturally conservative agenda, he would be a Republican candidate moderates can seriously consider.