On September 23, 1999, Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush gave the major defense and foreign policy address of his campaign for the White House. He chose a military academy in South Carolina called The Citadel as the setting for his remarks. U.S. embassies in Africa had recently been attacked by terrorists, and there was a widespread sense that things were spinning out of control in the Middle East. Iraq was believed to be seeking nuclear weapons. The U.S. was generating about a third of global military spending, but some conservatives feared it wasn’t enough. Against that backdrop, Bush offered his prescription for America’s role in the world:
Building a durable peace will require strong alliances, expanding trade and confident diplomacy. It will require tough realism in our dealings with China and Russia. It will require firmness with regimes like North Korea and Iraq — regimes that hate our values and resent our success…
America will not retreat from the world. On the contrary, I will replace diffuse commitments with focused ones. I will replace uncertain missions with well-defined objectives.
Bush spent much of the speech describing the need to increase defense spending, complaining that “not since the years before Pearl Harbor has our investment in national defense been so low as a percentage of GDP.” And he left little doubt what his top priorities would be in applying America’s renewed military might: protecting the homeland against terrorists and rogue states bent upon acquiring nuclear weapons — most of whom were in the Middle East.
Does this all sound familiar? A Republican presidential candidate giving a speech at a military school in the South about the need to stop terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East while bolstering defense spending? It should, because that’s precisely what Mitt Romney did on October 8 when he delivered his own signature remarks on defense and foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute. Against the backdrop of a terrorist attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya and Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, Romney called for more focused U.S. leadership in the Middle East and increased defense spending.
Of course, it wasn’t exactly the same: Bush complained that U.S. defense spending under the Democrats had fallen to a share of national wealth not seen since before America entered World War Two, whereas Romney complains that the U.S. Navy has shrunk to a size not seen since before America entered World War One. Bush was worried about Iraq getting nuclear weapons, Romney is worried about Iran getting nuclear weapons. But the rhetoric of the two speeches parallel each other in such formulaic fashion that it’s hard to believe Romney’s speechwriters didn’t read the one Governor’s remarks before preparing the other’s. And not surprisingly they come to the same conclusion: even though America (5% of the world’s population) is generating a third or more of all global military spending, it just isn’t enough. We need to do more.
This strikes me as the latest way in which the Romney presidential campaign sounds eerily like the Bush campaign of a dozen years ago. Once George W. Bush won the White House, insiders began describing the 43rd president as “Bush 43” to distinguish him from his father, who was “Bush 41” — the 41st president. Judging from Romney’s recent pronouncements, he plans to be “Bush 45,” at least in spirit. Sure we’re for small government and deregulation, but we still need to ban abortion. Yes, the Bush tax cuts didn’t prevent his administration from having the lowest rate of private-sector job creation since the Great Depression, but we need to cut tax rates again to stimulate economic growth. And when it comes to the Middle East, we must stop the bad guys from getting nuclear weapons, we must bolster our military presence and moral leadership in the region rather than hanging back.
Let’s hope that Bush 45 understands economic and foreign policy better than Bush 43 did, because the last time these prescriptions were applied, they got voters something much different than what they were hoping for.
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