The sudden swing of American attention to North Africa has clarified the way Mitt Romney sees his country's place in the world. Setting aside the merits of his campaign's timing, because you can say just about anything if the timing is right, it is worth taking a brief tour through the Museum of Provocative Weakness. That phrase is a favorite of Ambassador John Bolton, who said on August 28 that Romney "doesn't believe strength is provocative, he believes that American weakness is provocative." It has been used many times by Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. After the decision had been made to invade Iraq, Rumsfeld told ABC News that it didn't really matter if a war enrages Arab populations in the Middle East. "All I can say is if history has taught anything, it's that weakness is provocative. It entices people into doing things that they otherwise would not do." When Rumsfeld was fired by President Bush three years later, he used his final turn at the podium to say that "it is not only clear that weakness is provocative, but [that] the perception of weakness on our part can be provocative."
This phrase is the beating heart of Mitt Romney's world view. You can see it in his books. You can hear it whenever he condemns President Obama for his "apology tour." In practice, this means that whenever America has a choice about whether to demonstrate its will to power, it ought to exercise it. Anything else would telegraph weakness, a lack of resolve, that tips the balance of power in the world away from the good guys.
Where does this view come from? One common thread suggests it began with Leo Strauss' cold, hard view of history; a Tory view of human nature where the smart men mold the minds of everyone else, where reality is constantly created. But a new book by Len Colodny and Tom Schachtman, The Forty Years War, traces this view to a much more likely instigator: Fritz Kraemer, a German refugee who became a long-time adviser to the Department of Defense and to Henry Kissinger, to Scoop Jackson, to Alexander Haig, to Richard Nixon.
The authors quote Kissinger, who gave the eulogy at Kraemer's funeral: "He made no concessions to human faulty or to historic evolution; he treated intermediate solutions as derogation from eternal principle."
The book describes how Kissinger evolved in office; a no-no to Kraemer, who turned his attention to younger, more idealistic Nixon-era hands, like Donald Rumsfeld and Richard Perle. (Kraemer literally once told Rumsfeld: "No provocative weakness, please!")
Romney subscribes to this worldview. He always has. It has been a consistent through-line in his political career.
For Romney, Obama's view of power is far too humble, far too contingent, and far too subtle. It allows for the weed-like growth of enemies; when the U.S. is not engaged somewhere, enemies will pop up, just like particles do, because American power is such a juicy target. It fosters a false moral equivalence between American values, which are predominant and ought to be, and the excuses that people use to attack American interests. This is why Romney seemed so offended by Obama's insistence in making sure to condemn free speech provocateurs. Doing so departs from the eternal principle that America is in the right. It gives the enemy some ground. Privately, Romney advisers like to say that the only thing Obama has really done is to kill some people with drones, hardly brave, in their eyes.
The authors make clear that Kraemer's view of power was multidimensional and were not predicated solely on striking every available enemy with a big stick. Kraemer, after all, knew war: He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Romney has not shown much nuance, although his policy prescriptions are curiously without detail. He seems to favor speaking very loudly. Then: Well, we don't know.
Over the next few days, you will hear Romney's campaign attempt to frame the election as a choice between two views of American power; those who believe it ought to be projected, and those who believe that it ought to be humble. For Romney, humility is provocative, and power is a natural extension of the order of the world.
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