Rupert Cornwell: Republicans talk the talk but their foreign policy would be no different

Tampa Notebook

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The Independent Online

Foreign policy is not going to matter much in this particular US election. But it will a great deal afterwards. Yes, it's the economy, stupid. But unlike the economy, where a president must navigate the shoals of a bitterly partisan Congress to achieve anything, in foreign policy he has a free hand. And that will go for Mitt Romney, too, should he win on November 6. Alas, the Republican convention has done little to reveal what he might do.

Part of the problem is that traditional roles have been reversed. Usually the Democrats are more trusted on the economy. These days, if anything, it's the Republicans. By contrast, Democrats, depicted in Republican demonology as wimps and peaceniks, were seen as weak on foreign policy. Hard-nosed Republicans were deemed a better bet to keep the country safe.

But no longer. For what it's worth, Obama wins hands down in every poll on foreign policy. Once Republicans fielded heayweights like George Bush senior, Colin Powell, and, yes, Dick Cheney. But Romney and Paul Ryan have the least foreign policy experience of any Republican ticket in decades and, after the disasters under Bush junior, they're not inclined to dwell on it.

The result is confusion. On Wednesday, Condoleezza Rice, Dubya's national security adviser and Secretary of State, gave a terrific convention speech – except, however, when she ventured into foreign policy, supposedly her field of expertise. The cheek was almost breathtaking – the woman who was the face of the Bush foreign policy that brought about the Iraq invasion, the biggest US foreign blunder since Vietnam, and a vertiginous decline in US prestige and popularity, castigating Obama for lack of leadership and betrayal of the country's allies. No mention, of course, that this pusillanimous Obama nailed Osama bin Laden – something his predecessor signally failed to do.

So what would Romney foreign policy look like? He would unequivocally support Israel. He would presumably get tough with Russia (identified by him as the US's top geopolitical enemy). He would step up pressure on Iran, and give more help to the Syrian opposition. There has been much talk here about "American exceptionalism" and Obama's inability to respect it. But, pressed on TV this week, Rice did not specify a single foreign policy failure by his administration.

All of which suggests, mercifully, that Romney's foreign policy may not be that different from what we have now. He is a pragmatist, results-orientated and risk-averse. And the team around him may be, too. His campaign advisers include the neocon John Bolton. But those most widely mentioned for the State Department are Robert Zoellick, former head of the World Bank, Stephen Hadley, Rice's successor as national security adviser, and Richard Haass, president of the mainstream Council of Foreign Relations. By Republican standards, moderates all.

Holding out for a normal heroine

Talking of Condi Rice, one is struck by something else at this convention. With the possible exception of Wednesday's effort by Paul Ryan, all the best speeches have been delivered by women. Ann Romney connected in a way her husband almost never can, while among the supporting cast, the standouts were Mia Love, a mayor and black Mormon candidate for a Republican seat in Utah, and Susana Martinez, the first Latina governor of a US state.

The trouble is, they're super-women. Ann Romney has overcome breast cancer and somehow copes with MS. Condi we know about. Love has emerged in a state where blacks are just 2 per cent of the population, while Martinez told how she packed a Smith & Wesson .357 when she worked as a guard of a church parking lot, long before her ascent to the summit of New Mexico politics. The Republicans want to increase their share of the vote among women and minorities. But surely that means wheeling out ordinary women, who don't become mayor, governor or Secretary of State, who like most of the population lead stressful, not notably successful lives – and still vote Republican.