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Romney's New Foreign Policy Is America's Oldest Bad Habit

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For all the global excitement, last week's presidential debate was less a clash of policies than a squabble about who owns the same ones.

Beyond the usual sparring over which candidate is more reliable in the face of foreign threats, or which party is more to blame for them, there were few major differences in substance, from support for drone attacks in Pakistan to a 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan, non-military solutions in Syria and strict sanctions plus force if needed to forestall Iranian nuclear capability.

Leaders' debates can often provide few genuine signposts for what's to come after an election, and they seldom swing voters by much. Even less so on questions of foreign policy when the most important issues by far for most US voters are the economy, taxes and healthcare, as recent YouGov polling shows (see results).

A more telling comparison between rival foreign policy narratives arguably came earlier in October, when President Barak Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney strived for message-dominance over the Libyan Embassy attacks.

Obama has plenty of critics who say he botched the public response with insufficient speed and gusto in condemning the violence as an act of terrorism, and such accounts need little retelling here.

Meanwhile, the Romney Team gave an interesting signal of how they would re-craft America's voice to the world, which has gone less remarked.

For four years, the White House has fielded a more cosmopolitan and less classically American vocabulary of foreign policy, addressing the Muslim world in presidential Arabic while talking of re-set buttons in Moscow and leading from the back in Europe.

Beyond policy-specifics, something else was also missing in this period that punctuated America's rhetorical approach to the world after 9/11.

This is the national tendency to reduce foreign affairs to a mini-version of the American Revolution, in which the nation fights again to save a singular, universal brand of modernity from its singular, universal enemy.

Romney's efforts to deliver a signature foreign policy speech to the Virginia Military Institute amidst the Libyan brouhaha in mid-October were widely dismissed by many foreign newspapers as vague and short on specifics. But these pundits missed the point of what the speech was partly designed to do - and to exploit.

Behind questions of policy was an overt reinstatement of some powerful but arguably bad old habits of articulating US foreign policy that we haven't seen for - well, about four years, along with some of the same neoconservative advisors and speechwriters who came to prominence in the previous administration.

It would be wrong to call this process a 'Bush era thing'. Democrat politicians also periodically give it a go. But the Republican Party has long been better, more comfortable and more organised at doing it.

Writing as a former Washington ghost-writer, who worked for a former US Presidential speech-writer, here's a go at explaining the new-come-old rhetorical recipe.

Take a crisis, as Romney did, with the attack on the Libyan embassy. Then argue that events were not just "random attacks" or "an isolated incident" or the work of a single set of individuals, but are part of a larger, direct attack on the American homeland. In this case, Romney explained, the attacks were "the work of forces affiliated with those that attacked our homeland" eleven years ago on 9/11. In other words, there's only one group of Middle Eastern terrorists and it's coming to get us (again). Finally, make it clear, as Romney did, that America is under attack because of what it is: the leading proponent in an expanding system of global liberty.

This kind of all-American speech-framing has at least two advantages.

First, it blends enemies and challenges into a single versatile bogeyman that is easily moved across borders and theatres. We last saw him running across the American public space so prominently during the heaviest years of the recent Iraqi civil war, when Saudi plane hijackers in the US ended up on the same team as Shiite nationalists in Iraq and Pashtun elders in Pakistan.

More YouGov polling shows there's still plenty of traction in the American electorate for generalised Islamic scare-scenarios. When asked about the YouTube film protests, 37% of Americans overall agreed that most or at least half of all the Muslim world supported the violence directed against the US. This figure increased to nearly 60% among Republican voters, while falling to 18% among Democrats. 64% of Republicans also agreed there's a fundamental conflict between the West and the Muslim world, in which one or the other must eventually prevail (see results).

A second advantage is how it returns debate to the most familiar theme of American daily life, often with a chloroforming effect on national audiences, media outlets and political institutions.

Largely on account of how the nation was born, America has an institutionalised reverence for its founding story that stands out from other Western countries. The short version of this story says that America was born of special circumstances that bequeathed a unique burden as the global leader of human progress. This notion of 'America The Different' remains the sacred cow of national discourse and an on-going force just beneath the public surface, from school assemblies and public buildings to car bumpers, strip malls, constitutional amendments and major declarations of foreign policy. It also rises up at times of national stress and is capable of suppressing key democratic functions, opening the way for flamboyant orators and interested parties to stigmatise scepticism towards patriotic orthodoxy as dangerous. Deviation from the consensus in this context becomes a form of political incorrectness. Precisely this atmosphere was inhaled by various US media outlets in the build-up to War in Iraq, leading several national newspapers to apologise later for a lack of impartial rigour.

American commentator Walter Lippmann once described these dynamics as the US temptation to "absolutise" major foreign challenges into a binary contest between the American way of life and its absolute antithesis. A short history of the recurrent syndrome could include the 19th Century Spanish threat in Cuba, the Red Scare of the early Cold War, America's entry in Vietnam and the War on Terror after 9/11.

This tendency also incurs another liability in how it sets Americans up for repeated disappointment in foreign affairs by squeezing the international realm into a false dichotomy.

According to Romney and his speech-writers, the recent Benghazi crowds were split between two camps, with "vicious mobs shouting Death to America" versus those protesting against the militias with signs saying "Libya is sorry", and who "share our values" instead.

In increasing ways, however, they do not. YouGov polling of the Arab Spring suggests that far from helping different societies to converge, Middle Eastern reformers are intensifying national, cultural and religious differences, while forging new political expressions of Islamic modernity, religious-social conservatism, and sectarian populism (see results). There is scant liberal homogeneity here.

These trends are also a portal to the bigger story of 'new-look, post-American globalisation', which got little attention in the final Presidential debate. From illiberal capitalism in Asia to Islamic democracy in the Middle East, rising polities and powers no longer face a simple choice (if they ever did) between confronting or integrating with the American way. They are increasingly finding legitimate and sustainable development-alternatives that route around both options.

If Romney were to win this race for the White House, at least one prediction seems reliable: enter more Rose Garden references to a time when US policy-makers wore powdered wigs and knee-high breeches.