The Man Who Knew Too Much
Back in March of 2014, a number of conservative writers (myself included) rubbed a little salt in the political wounds of the Obama administration, the Democratic party, and members of the mainstream media who had — just two years earlier — excoriated then Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney for having the audacity to label Russia our country's "number one geopolitical foe."
"The 1980s are calling to ask for their foreign policy back," chided then President Obama at one of the debates. “The Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
Secretary of State John Kerry, with his arms flailing in condescension as he addressed the audience at the Democratic National Convention, went even further. He called Romney’s assertion "preposterous," adding that "Mitt Romney talks like he’s only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV."
"I don’t know what decade this guy’s living in," said MSNBC's Chris Matthews. "Is he trying to play Ronald Reagan here, or what?"
"...the problem is [Romney] just doesn’t have any real policy chops in this area," wrote Rachel Maddow. "He’s out of his depth, and struggles when the subject takes center stage. It’s not just that Romney is uninformed; it’s that he hasn’t figured out how to fake it."
Even Republican Colin Powell got in on the action. "Come on, Mitt. Think," he said to fellow panelists on MSNBC. "...I think he really needs to not just accept these cataclysmic sort of pronouncements. Let’s not go creating enemies where none yet exist."
Of course, Romney turned out to be absolutely right. Russia invaded its neighbor, launching the Russo-Ukrainian War that has since killed about 10,000 people, and displaced over a million Ukrainians.
The conflict was dramatically escalated this week, when Russian troops brazenly entered eastern Ukraine. Some are calling it the beginning of the new Cold War, and there's solid evidence suggesting they're right.
With this escalation, many in the right-wing media have been revisiting that 2012 debate moment, reemphasizing just how wrong Obama was, and how right Romney had it. They've also been quick to point out that Biden's unforced decision to pull out of Afghanistan, and hand the country back over to the Taliban, likely emboldened Vladimir Putin with its demonstration of American weakness and diminishing interests in overseas interventions.
This is another area where Romney was correct, as he was an outspoken opponent of leaving Afghanistan — one of the very few in Washington.
While I certainly understand the political right's inclination to run an "I told you so" political victory lap over these events, it's impossible to miss the irony that Mitt Romney — the guy who got it right on these things — is largely despised not only by today's Republican party, but also by nearly everyone in the right-wing media.
Even more ironic is the reason for it: he was right about Trump too.
Romney, as everyone remembers, spoke out a number of times against Donald Trump over the years, usually in regard to issues of conduct, temperament, and demonstrations of weakness on the world stage. This infuriated the increasingly tribal and Trumpy Republican base, including prominent politicians and media figures who still maintain that grudge (or at least pretend to for professional purposes). What was notable in their condemnations, however, was that they almost never challenged Romney's actual criticisms of Trump. They instead resorted to personal snipes, including his 2012 presidential loss and the assignment of eye-rolling ulterior motives like jealousy, closet liberalism, and "deep state" allegiance.
There was a reason for that, of course. They largely understood that what Romney was saying, at least by any objective measure, was pretty much inarguable. What they objected to was Romney saying it out loud. His public statements were seen as acts of disloyalty and even treason within a political movement held together by one man's ego and attitude-driven brand. And because many political and media careers had become dependent on that brand over time, Romney was vilified at just about every opportunity.
But again, Romney was right, like in his memorable speech in 2016 when he said to Republican primary voters, "Haven't we seen before what happens when people in prominent positions fail the basic responsibility of honorable conduct? We have. And it always injures our families and our country."
Trump went on to win the presidency about six months later, and after four politically exhausting years of often needless polarization, he finished his term by provoking a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol — along with the dangerous, widespread, ongoing belief that our nation's very democracy had been stolen. This was a direct result of the wholesale rejection of that "basic responsibility of honorable conduct."
Specifically in regard to Russia, Romney also had it right in his admonishments of Trump over his often expressed admiration for Putin. That admiration compelled Trump, as president, to repeatedly rationalize Putin's crimes (including murder) with declarations of moral equivalency with the United States. Trump deeply embarrassed our nation in Helsinki in 2018 by publicly siding with Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies, in regard to U.S. findings that the Russian government unequivocally interfered in our 2016 election. Trump even proposed forming a cyber-security partnership with Russia to potentially get Putin even more involved in U.S. elections. And let's not forget Trump's attempted extortion of Ukraine president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, using U.S. security funding approved by congress to assist with Ukraine's fight against Russian aggression; that stunt led to Trump's first impeachment, and a subsequent trial in which Romney was the only Republican who voted to convict (other Republicans joined him in the second impeachment trial).
I could venture into other areas, like Romney's positions on trade and entitlements, but let's get back to Russia's latest invasion of Ukraine. While it's not the fault of the United States, I think it's fair to say that what's happening illustrates a failure of probably every U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War to effectively deal with Russia. I also think it's fair to say, as many have argued (and I agree with), that Putin indeed factored the debacle in Afghanistan into his decision, at this moment in history, to escalate the Russia/Ukraine conflict. Biden, of course, owns what happened in Afghanistan, and those who argue otherwise really don't have much of a case. But it also shouldn't be overlooked that the same collapse assuredly would have gone down under his predecessor, who put the policy in motion and vowed to finalize it even faster than Biden did.
While members of the political right are chiding Biden for the Russia/Ukraine conflict, they might want to keep that in mind. And if there's any value at all placed on foresight and vindication in U.S. politics, both sides might want to at least consider offering Mitt Romney an apology. If that's too grandiose, how about just listening to him on important issues, or — at minimum — thinking twice about scoffing at the mere mention of his name?
Of course, I don't expect any of those things to happen — not in today's environment. I just figured I'd end this column on a comical note.