The scene is the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention in Reno, Nev. Enter Mitt Romney stage right, dressed as Rambo.
This typecasting goes with the territory for Republican presidential aspirants. None going back to Richard Nixon has been able to resist it because that is what the base wants. The base wants to believe that their man will bound on the world stage with a dagger between his teeth, swathed in belts of ammo, an assault weapon at the ready and a brace of grenades on his belt, ready to toss at anyone who does not toe the line
The most dangerous part of this metaphorical macho get-up for Romney is the one that is not seen. It is the script by the likes of John Bolton, George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador, with editing by an assortment of Bush-era neo-cons, and some old-time Cold War warriors from the Bush and even Reagan era.
One of these men, a former secretary of defense, told me at the time of the Iraq invasion: “At least the Arabs will respect us now.”
In truth, the Arabs got quite a different lesson. It is one that all empires learn eventually: When you invade, you reveal yourself in ways you would rather not have.
One of the many sad lessons of the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions is how after brilliant military performances, we fell apart in both countries with inter-agency squabbling, a lack of planning and terrible naivety in the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the Agency for International Development. Worse, the CIA either did not know or was not heeded about conditions on the ground in either country. Is it possible that no one told George W. Bush about the Sunni dominance of the Shia majority in Iraq? But that is true. Money, lives and respect have been lost.
Conservative foreign-policy thinking is, it seems to me after decades of talking with conservatives about foreign policy, unduly influenced by two aspects of history, both British.
The first is the British Empire. I was born into it and spent the first 20 years of my life in one of its last embers, Rhodesia. Conservatives are right to admire much of the British Empire. It was a great system of trade, education and, much of the time, impartial justice.
It rested on two planks: military superiority and huge confidence in British superiority. Call it British exceptionalism. Its unwinding in Asia and Africa had different causes that led to the same result.
In Asia, and particularly in India, which then included what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, the end came when the idea of the British as a kind of super-race with their “show” of ceremonies, from tea to parades, plus military and civil skills died. Indians started traveling to Britain, particularly in Victorian times, and were appalled at the squalor they found in British slums. These people were not that super.
In Africa, the end came because of a general sense after World War II that self-determination was the way of the future.
What hastened everything was not only a change in moral perception but also the proliferation of small arms.
Churchill famously said: “I did not become the King’s first minister to preside over the dissolution of the British Empire.” But it was dissolving. Britain’s main loss, looking back, was to its pride.
The other British history lesson that is misread by conservative foreign-policy analysts in the United States is Munich.
Certainly when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain waved his piece of paper on Sept. 30, 1938 and declared, “peace for our time,” he was a hero. He was a hero because just two decades earlier, the British Empire had suffered 3.1 million casualties in World War I.
Churchill knew that this wound was open. He did not refer to the courage and sacrifice of that war when seeking courage and sacrifice in a new war. Also, Britain was not ready for war; rearmament, urged by Churchill, was still in its infancy.
Many old-line Republicans tell me that Romney is not a man who will be marched around by those who brought us Vietnam, Iran Contra and Iraq. He is smarter than that.
They believe that when the time comes, if it comes, President Romney will be Romney. Not Rambo. — For the Hearst-New York Times Syndicate