One last clash, with the world their stage
Mitt Romney and President Obama share key foreign views but have different visions of American power in the future
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The Obama administration counts its “reset” of relations with Moscow as a major accomplishment that smoothed the way for Russian cooperation against Iran, including the cancellation of a large sale of defense equipment to Tehran. But Romney has called for a tougher stance, and says he would not normalize trade relations with Moscow until Congress passes a law targeting human rights abusers in Russia.
Alex Wong, the Romney campaign’s foreign policy director, defended the characterization of Russia as the nation’s primary foe, accusing Moscow of watering down sanctions against Iran. “This relationship has actually deteriorated over the last four years, and on every front Russia has been working to frustrate American interests,” he said.
One of the major questions about Romney is what brand of adviser would have the most influence if he becomes president. For example, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who comes from the more moderate realist camp, is running Romney’s national security transition team, while Dan Senor, widely considered to come from the more hawkish neoconservative camp, is a top adviser to Romney and running mate Paul Ryan.
Wong, asked if Romney considers himself a neoconservative, “Governor Romney’s foreign policy doctrine is he will do whatever it takes to make America stronger.”
Analysts said that, notwithstanding some harsh rhetoric, the two candidates have more in common than may be widely realized on issues regarding Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, and Libya.
In a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, for example, Romney said Obama “has failed to lead in Syria.” But much of Romney’s policy mirrors that of the president. Both men have opposed using US air power to create no-fly zones or safe havens, rejecting a proposal from Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican. Romney has said that he wants to help get arms to rebels, with the major caveat they must “share our values,” a vague condition that may be hard for a president to implement.
A key Romney adviser and leading neoconservative, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, has said rebels who are “truly secular” should receive arms. (Bolton did not respond to a request for comment.) The Obama administration has said it won’t send weapons directly to the rebels, citing concern that they might get into the hands of terrorists, but has encouraged the shipment of some lighter arms via other countries.
On Afghanistan, the policy differences are nuanced. Romney backs the administration’s plan for withdrawing troops by 2014, but has also attacked Obama for publicizing the date in advance, arguing it would embolden terrorists who could simply wait out the next two years. The administration counters that setting a firm date is necessary to convince the Afghan government that it must step up to take responsibility for its security.
The White House says that international sanctions against Iran are working but that all options including military force are on the table to stop the country from getting a nuclear weapon. But despite pressure from Israel, the administration has declined to specify under exactly what conditions it might take military action.
Romney has given shifting explanations for when he would use force against Iran. He said during a visit to Israel this summer that he would not allow Iran to gain a “nuclear weapons capability.” In an interview with ABC News this fall, though, Romney appeared to raise his threshold from simply gaining a capability. “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon,” he said, a stance that appeared to mirror the president’s policy.
The clearest difference between the two candidates, though, may be on defense spending. Obama has proposed paring back planned expenditures by $487 billion over the next 10 years, while Romney has promised to increase spending on the basic military budget until it reaches 4 percent of GDP, up from a projected 3.5 percent in the 2013 budget. That would translate into about an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years. He has not accounted for how all the extra money would be spent, and critics have questioned the idea of basing military spending on a percentage of GDP.
“There’s no strategy behind it,” Flournoy, of the Obama campaign, said at a Thursday debate in Washington with a Romney foreign policy adviser. “How in the world are you going to pay for it, especially if you are not willing to increase taxes for the wealthiest Americans?”
Romney adviser Dov S. Zakheim, an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, responded at the debate that defense spending is not a major part of the debt problem. “The problem is entitlements,” he said, referring to programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “It is not defense. Defense is practically a rounding error. So if you want to go ahead and trade defense as a hostage for the issues that have to be dealt with, go right ahead. But the only people you will be helping are the Iranians, North Koreans, the Venezuelans, and others like them.”Continued...