Mitt Romney’s inflated fearmongering

By Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko
June 4, 2012

“I wish I could tell you that the world is a safe place today. It’s not.” With these words, delivered at a Memorial Day commemoration last Monday in San Diego, Mitt Romney perpetuated what is perhaps the greatest single myth in American foreign policy – that we live in a world of lurking danger and rising threats.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the world today is safer than at any point in human history. Wars of all kind, including civil wars, are on the decline; and inter-state war, in particular, is even rarer. According to the Uppsala University Conflict Database, in 1992, there were 53 armed conflicts raging in 39 countries around the world; in 2010, there were 30 armed conflicts in 25 countries.

And when wars do occur, they are for the most part low-intensity conflicts that, on average, kill about 90 percent fewer people than did violent struggles in the 1950s, according to the Human Security Report Project at the School for International Studies at Simon Fraser University. In fact, the first 10 years of this century witnessed fewer deaths from war than any decade in the last century

Even more important, the worst and most violent types of conflicts, great power wars, have virtually disappeared. There hasn’t been one in six decades, and a big part of the reason is that there is not a single country with the capabilities or inclination to confront the world’s biggest and most powerful nation – the United States.

Beyond war’s declining appeal, freedom is actually on the march. According to Freedom House there are 117 electoral democracies in the world, up from 69 at the end of the Cold War. The world today is also more prosperous, better educated and far healthier than ever before. A world defined by such positive attributes is a world far less likely to find itself mired in a future of violence and war.

These rather unassailable facts are all too often disputed by hyped-up threats and fears of global bogeymen. To be sure, threat inflation is a bipartisan tactic, practiced by both Republicans and Democrats. But Romney’s use of it is particularly harmful, since his solutions would be unilateral and overly militarized, two approaches that have served America poorly since 9/11. Moreover, his “evidence” that the world is unsafe is often based on unsubstantiated allegations that provide a misleading view of the global environment.

For example, on Monday, Romney claimed that “Iran is rushing to become a nuclear nation. As the national sponsor of terror around the world, the thought of missile material in the hands of Hezbollah or Hamas or other terrorists is simply unthinkable.”

In fact, there’s no evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program – a view held by both America’s own intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Romney is likely referring here to fissile material, but it would be difficult for Iran to export it, since it doesn’t actually possess weapons-grade fissile material. While it’s true that Iran has supported terrorist organizations, it is implausible that if Iran were ever able to pursue a nuclear weapons program it would simply hand such invaluable and destructive technologies to terrorists to use as they pleased. Such fantastical notions are appropriate for Hollywood movies, not actual foreign affairs.

Next Romney asserts that “China’s on the road to becoming a … military superpower.” That’s one extremely long road, because China, while a regional power in East Asia, is quite far from being a military superpower and even further from being able to confront the United States directly. As General Robert Kehler, head of U.S. nuclear forces, said yesterday: “I do not see the Chinese strategic deterrent as a direct threat to the United States. We are not enemies.” China still spends roughly one-sixth on defense what the United States does, and gets much less for its money in terms of actual deployable war-fighting capability. In 2012, China won’t spend much more on its entire military than what the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies will spend on military research and development, which amounts to only 11 percent of its defense budget.

What about Russia, a country that Romney has inexplicably called America’s “number one geopolitical foe”? On Monday, Romney darkly warned that “Russia is rebuilding their military and is now led by a man who believes that the Soviet Union was a great, as opposed to evil, empire.”

On the second part – so what? That Vladimir Putin, a politician, has a particularly rosy view of his country’s past is neither surprising nor relevant. Indeed, one could compare Putin’s historical revisionism with Romney’s refusal to countenance any suggestion that the United States is not an exceptional country. Nonetheless, Russia is simply not a military threat to the United States. Modern Russia is demographically challenged, politically isolated, and a military power only with its nuclear weapons. In addition, Moscow is confronted by a military alliance, in NATO, that contains 28 countries, 3 million troops, and a couple of thousand nuclear-tipped missiles.

Finally, Romney is intent on finding new enemies in places where they barely exist, “Chavez is campaigning for power throughout Latin America,” says Romney. “Mexico is under siege from the cartels and in the Middle East the Arab Spring has become an Arab Winter.”

Latin America is actually a great success story of the last 20 years. A few decades ago, it was a region marked by dictatorship and political dysfunction. Today, it is a bastion of democracy, and conflict in the region is largely non-existent. Chavez might talk a big game in Latin America, but fewer people in the region – let alone his own country – are listening. Parts of Mexico are under siege from cartels, but this amazingly has had little effect on the United States. Violent crime rates – for murder, robbery and kidnappings – in border cities have been steadily falling for years; and if Romney is so concerned about the drug-fueled violence, perhaps he might want to suggest some much-needed reforms of U.S. policies on illicit drug consumption, handgun sales and bulk cash transfers. As for the Arab Spring turning into an Arab Winter, it’s an odd charge only days after Egypt held its first presidential election in the post-Mubarak era.

For Romney, however, what makes all of these “threats” so scary is that the U.S. is “shrink[ing] our military smaller and smaller.” It’s important to note here that even though Romney likes to blame President Obama for $487 billion in scheduled cuts to the defense budget over the next decade, they are the result of a legislative deal cut between the White House and congressional Republicans – a deal that is almost exclusively the result of the House GOP’s debt-limit brinkmanship of last year.

Nonetheless, cutting back the size of the military is precisely what countries do after they exit lengthy and costly wars – and with the 170,000 U.S. troops out of Iraq and the remaining U.S. combat forces leaving Afghanistan over the next 30 months, the justification for maintaining the U.S. military at its current size makes little sense.

Romney wants to, in his words, “commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world.”

The good news is that the U.S. military will remain second to none for the foreseeable future, regardless of who becomes president. Even after the scheduled marginal defense drawdown, under current Pentagon projections, the United States will retain an Army of 490,000 active-duty soldiers, 18 divisions, 65 brigade combat teams, and 21 combat aviation brigades; a Navy of 285 ships, featuring 11 carrier battle groups, including 10 air wings, 82 guided missile cruisers and destroyers, and 48 nuclear-powered attack submarines; an Air Force consisting of 54 combat-coded fighter squadrons, 453 air-refuelers, 150 bombers; a Marine Corps of 182,000 active-duty Marines; a nuclear triad, with 1,550 operationally deployed nuclear weapons and perhaps an additional 4,000 in reserve. No other country, or coalition of countries, will be capable of deploying and sustaining combat power to the extent that the U.S. can for the foreseeable future.

In the end, Romney’s foreign policy speeches feature two dangerous assumptions about the world. First, he inflates and mischaracterizes the threats that America faces. Second, he projects weakness by having no confidence in America’s ability to meet any such challenges, as it has in the past at great cost and sacrifice. We’re not sure if Romney is confused or afraid; but we do know that he is wrong.

PHOTO: Mitt Romney (L), U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governor, applauds a World War II veteran during a memorial day ceremony held at the Veterans Museum & Memorial Center in San Diego, California May 28, 2012. REUTERS/Denis Poroy

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