Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy has been unrelenting. The Republican presidential nominee has said Obama has let US dominance fall by the wayside, botched military withdrawals, let Iran move closer to nuclear capability, coddled China, and mishandled the Arab revolutions.
Obama, in turn, has suggested that Romney is a foreign policy novice who is posturing on Iran. Romney, he says, risks dragging a war-weary nation into another conflict, will sacrifice domestic programs to spend an extra and unneeded $2 trillion on defense, and will let a band of neoconservatives from the George W. Bush administration regain power.
Thus the stage is set for a fierce collision when the two meet Monday night in Florida for a foreign policy debate — the last debate to be held before Election Day — in which the positions of the candidates on war and world affairs will be on center stage in a way that hasn’t yet occurred in this campaign.
While the campaign has recently been consumed over questions about whether Obama misstated the reasons for the attack on a US consulate in Libya, the debate is likely to focus on a far larger question dividing the candidates when it comes to foreign policy: How far should the United States go in exerting its military might and geopolitical influence around the world, and at what cost?
Analysts said the candidates have surprisingly similar policies on some key foreign issues, such as the 2014 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. But Obama and Romney have projected a starkly different view of how American power should be used in the future.
“Even if it turns out they agree point for point on America’s role in the world, there can be tremendous disagreement on how you implement that,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington.
It is telling, analysts said, that the shadow of George W. Bush administration hangs over the foreign policy of both candidates. Obama has spent much of his term extricating the United States from wars that began under his predecessor, while Romney’s advisers include some of Bush’s most hawkish former aides, raising questions about whether the nominee is planning for a renaissance of neoconservative policy.
In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, foreign policy has been perceived as one of Obama’s greatest strengths. But Romney’s recent attacks on the president have helped close that gap. A poll conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center found that Obama is viewed as a better foreign policy leader than Romney by a four-point margin, compared with a 15-point advantage one month earlier.
Obama generally prefers a coalition approach and has strived to keep US ground troops out of new conflicts.
“President Obama came in and took a very different approach to US leadership than the Bush administration, which Romney seems to want to go back to,” Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy, said in an interview. “The first term of Bush was threatening the use of military instruments and often being out front and alone.
“This president has said US leadership is about leveraging our alliance and partnerships to bring the international community together for more effective action. Yes, obviously we will take unilateral action when vital interests require it, i.e., [killing] bin Laden. But the preferred and more effective strategy is to lead others to the table. That is a fundamentally different approach in philosophy and style.”
Romney often has been bellicose, saying that he would be more willing to use American power to shape the world. But some of his charges have raised questions about how he would follow up if he becomes president. Romney, who has accused Obama of being too soft on China, has said he would declare the country a currency manipulator, a move that some fear could set off a new trade war, while Obama has said Romney is “the last person who is going get tough with China.”
One of Romney’s most controversial foreign policy statements came when he said that Russia is the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States, evoking memories of the Cold War.
“I’d like to know where the devil he gets that idea. It’s preposterous,” said Leslie Gelb, former president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb, like a number of analysts, said that Romney has both “realists” and “neoconservatives” among his advisers, and he said the latter appear to have pushed him to excoriate Russia.Continued...