As the founder of a hugely successful private equity firm, Mitt Romney is a well-known turnaround specialist. This week, by trying to associate his hair-trigger worldview with the American statesman George Marshall, the Republican presidential contender revealed himself as a bait-and-switch artist. Opening his speech on foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney paid tribute to George Marshall, the sage VMI alumnus who went on to become America’s chief military planner during World War II and the admired Secretary of State whose post-war European recovery plan bares his name. General Marshall’s commitment to peace, Romney said, was “born of his direct knowledge of the awful costs and consequences of war.”
Romney then sketched the contours of an aggrandizing, militarized foreign policy that would have horrified Marshall, a model of restraint and a skeptic of entangling alliances and the huge deployments of force that go with them. As a junior officer stationed in pre-revolutionary China, for example, Marshall and his comrades sniffed at the enforcers of England's empire as “treaty-port Brits.” In the Red-baiting 1950s, Marshall fiercely rejected calls by right-wing Sinophobes—the neoconservatives of their time—to wage war on communist China. Such a campaign would require a half million men, he told an aide, “and once I get them in how will I get them out?”
Yet there was Romney, ticking off a list of national security threats—China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Afghanistan, Cuba, Venezuela—and calling for a vastly-enlarged military budget when even the Pentagon has acknowledged that the most formidable threat facing the country is fiscal dissolution.
Romney punctuated his address with references to Israel and what he regards as America’s scared obligation to defend it. Yet it was Marshall who, as secretary of state, emphatically opposed then-President Harry Truman’s decision to recognize the infant state of Israel in 1948 for the danger it would create for US interests. George Kennan, a senior Marshall deputy at the State Department, blamed pro-recognition forces for forcefully advocating “objectives which could scarcely fail to lead to violent results.” Marshall famously admonished the president for politicizing foreign policy by appealing to pro-recognition groups, which he told Truman during a staff meeting was reason enough to vote against him. (As a civil servant loyal only to the institutions he served, Marshall did not vote.)
Romney argued that America’s foreign policy should be invested with its “values” and he assured listeners his policy proscriptions were not the brew of perpetual conflict. Marshall, in contrast, dismissed indulgent talk of American exceptionalism and he understood that unqualified military commitments assume lives of their own. (He would have demobilized the bulk of U.S. forces after World War II had Truman not opted for the ruinous policy of containing the Soviet Union and China.) Like Dwight Eisenhower, one of the Republican Party’s most popular twentieth-century presidents, Marshall’s hard-boiled realism would be irreconcilable with the party’s imperial ambitions of today.
What is most disturbing about Romney’s manifesto is not its deviations from current US foreign policy but its consistencies. Despite efforts to distinguish himself from his White House rival, there was little in Romney’s speech that distanced himself from the policies of President Barack Obama, who in his own way has done as much to militarize America’s posture abroad as any of his predecessors. This is not surprising, given how US foreign policy is charted largely by the Defense Department except in the Middle East, where it is driven by the voting patterns of Christian Zionists and their Jewish counterparts in thrall to Israel’s Likud Party.
It would take political reformation led by citizen-soldiers like George Marshall to change that. Sadly, we will not see his kind again.