When President Obama and Mitt Romney meet in Boca Raton, Fla., on Oct. 22 to debate foreign policy, they will face a challenge to differentiate their positions beyond the now-familiar narratives.
Obama has run as the strong leader who brought Osama bin Laden to justice, ended the war in Iraq, and is winding down the conflict in Afghanistan. The Obama team believes it has also corrected the excesses of George W. Bush’s administration, which it saw as too unilateral. Obama’s White House sought to act collectively when possible, tried to “reset” relations with Russia, offered dialogue to Iran and Syria, reached out to the Muslim world, and attempted (unsuccessfully) to mediate in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Romney has assumed Ronald Reagan’s mantle of “peace through strength,” calling for increases in the size of the U.S. military and criticizing Obama consistently from the neoconservative Right. The Romney team believes that Obama’s undue deference to multilateralism has weakened U.S. policies toward rogue regimes in Syria, Iran, and North Korea. It also criticizes the Democratic administration’s outreach to the Islamic world as apologizing for American greatness; objects to Obama’s burden-sharing approach to the conflict in Libya as “leading from behind”; denounces the moves with Russia; and especially rejects the administration’s pressure on Israel to freeze settlement activities as a way to kick-start the peace process. (At the same time, the GOP did not schedule a single foreign-policy speech for Tampa.) Here are the sharpest points of conflict:
Iran. Romney has drawn a very hard line on Iran over its suspected nuclear-weapons program, criticizing Obama for trying to stave off a military strike by Israel in order to give sanctions a chance. But the administration has itself staked out a very uncompromising position, stating categorically that Tehran will not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. That leaves little room for Romney to attack on the right, other than an outright pledge to launch a military strike, something no presidential candidate can responsibly pledge in advance of a decision as commander in chief.
Syria. With Russia and China blocking action in the United Nations Security Council and civil war raging, the administration has been inching toward greater support for the rebels battling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It has stopped short, however, of directly supplying lethal weaponry. Romney has criticized Obama’s “lack of leadership” and called on the United States to “work with partners” to arm the rebels. Both candidates have so far rejected a Libya-type military intervention involving U.S. and allied airpower.
Israel. After the administration pressured Israel to freeze settlements in the occupied West Bank, Obama’s relationship with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became famously chilly. The White House has somewhat insulated itself from criticism by securing additional funding for Israel’s air-defense system (on top of roughly $3 billion in annual U.S. aid). Romney criticized the administration for seeming to “warm to the Palestinian cause.” On his trip to Israel in July, Romney called Jerusalem “Israel’s capital” and suggested he would move the U.S. Embassy there, breaking with decades of American policy that the disposition of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated as part of a two-state solution. That would be a substantive difference in foreign-policy approaches.
Russia. The Obama administration attempted to reset frayed relations with Russia, in part by reconfiguring a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe. In return, Russia agreed to further reduce both countries’ nuclear arsenals, a key nonproliferation goal for Obama. But with the return of hard-line autocrat Vladimir Putin to the presidency, and Moscow’s continued support for the bloody Assad regime in Syria, Romney has slammed the reset, saying in March that Russia “is, without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
China. In the face of increasing assertiveness from China, the White House announced a strategic pivot to Asia that has all the hallmarks of a classic “hedging strategy.” Romney has threatened to label Beijing a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office if the Communist regime continues to refuse to float its currency. “If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China,” Romney has said.