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Obama vs Romney on the Issues / OBAMA VS. ROMNEY: FOREIGN POLICY

Obama vs. Romney: Foreign Policy

photo of James Kitfield
August 23, 2012



Two of Obama’s first official acts as president were to sign executive orders banning “enhanced interrogation techniques” that had been used on terrorism suspects and pledging to close the Guantánamo Bay military prison within one year. Almost immediately, however, Congress began passing bipartisan laws barring the transfer of Guantánamo detainees and the building of prisons on U.S. soil to house them. The administration’s response has been to reform the military commissions to try Bush-era detainees at Guantánamo and to remand new terrorism suspects to federal custody. Obama’s decision not to investigate or prosecute any Bush-era officials for their part in enhanced interrogations precluded a legal precedent determining that techniques such as waterboarding amount to torture.

U.S.-Russian relations reached a post-Cold War nadir in 2008, when Russia invaded neighboring Georgia. The Obama administration responded with a “reset” that included reconfiguring plans for a U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe into one less threatening to Moscow, followed by Obama’s visit there in 2009. The countries have since signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (known as New START). Moscow has also allowed the use of Russian territory as a resupply route for U.S. forces in Afghanistan and, on the U.N. Security Council, has acceded to the strongest sanctions to date on Iran for its suspected nuclear program. Moscow has, however, consistently blocked tougher sanctions on Syria.’’


Obama promised in 2009 to redouble U.S. efforts to seek a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But after Israel pushed back against pressure to freeze settlements, the administration never fully recovered its momentum to advance peace talks. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011 put the U.S. in reactive mode, with Obama calling on Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to step aside; letting France and Great Britain take the lead in an air operation that ousted Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi; and refusing to intervene militarily to stop the bloodletting of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad.

China’s rising power represents the greatest challenge to the international system. That ascendance has been greatly accelerated by the economic downturn that Beijing sees as “made in America” and that has disproportionately affected Western nations. With the increasingly self-confident Chinese staking territorial claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, the administration reacted with a “strategic pivot” to Asia last year. A classic case of hedging, the strategy involves an increased U.S. military presence in Asia and closer security ties with nations on China’s periphery that feel threatened, including Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam.



The administration ended “enhanced interrogations.” But Guantánamo Bay remains open.

In effect since February 2011, the pact limits the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads in the U.S. and Russian arsenals to 1,500, a cut of about 10 percent.

Egypt is undergoing a rocky democratic transition; Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi is dead; Syria’s Bashar al-Assad still clings to power; Iran is constrained by sanctions but is still suspected of pursuing a nuclear-weapons program; Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are on life support; U.S. troops are out of Iraq.

The relationship remains vulnerable to disruptions that include Beijing’s dismal human-rights record and routine currency manipulation,and strengthened U.S. military alliances in Asia.



Joe Biden: A former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman, the vice president is a top foreign-policy adviser and the last person in the room offering Obama his views. Biden’s penchant for blurting whatever is on his mind periodically gets him “a little bit over his skis,” as Obama has remarked.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: The tireless secretary of State has given new meaning to “shuttle diplomacy.” She has also become a star on the diplomatic circuit, admired for toughness and compassion. Clinton does not plan to stay for a second Obama term.

Leon Panetta: The unflappable Panetta is credited for calming the CIA left roiling by Obama’s release of the “torture memos” and for managing the successful hunt for Osama bin Laden. As Defense secretary, he has assumed responsibility for winding down the Afghanistan war and downsizing the military.

Tom Donilon: This longtime Democratic operative succeeded Gen. James Jones as national-security adviser. A behind-the-scenes operator, he gets credit for orchestrating the White House response to the Arab Spring revolutions and the raid that killed bin Laden.






Romney has positioned himself to the right of Obama, saying he would “double Guantánamo” detainees. He has also refused to rule out the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” such as waterboarding. He has favored the use of military commissions over federal courts to prosecute suspected terrorists, pledging that under his administration a conversation with a “would-be suicide bomber will not begin with the words, ‘You have the right to remain silent.’ ” In asserting that terrorism suspects at Guantánamo have no constitutional rights, Romney seems to ignore a Supreme Court ruling that detainees in fact have the right of habeas corpus.

He believes that Obama’s outreach to Moscow and “reset” in relations is badly misguided and will be perceived as weakness by the reinstalled President Vladimir Putin, who has described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The GOP nominee charges that Russia ships arms to Syria that Bashar al-Assad uses to kill his people; uses its oil resources as a bludgeon to intimidate Eastern and Central Europe; and still has troops illegally occupying portions of Georgia. Most of all, Romney and many other Republicans believe that Obama will yield to Moscow’s insistence to weaken a planned U.S. missile-defense shield in Europe.

Romney faults the Obama administration for pressuring Israel to grant one-sided concessions, such as halting settlement activity, to the Palestinians. He says that the president was out of line in suggesting that Israel should accept post-1967-war borders with agreed-upon land swaps as the starting point for negotiations over a two-state solution. Romney has criticized Obama for attempting to engage with Iran; for being slow to criticize Tehran’s brutal crackdown on democracy protesters in 2009; and for openly discouraging Israel from launching a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Acknowledging that the United States must actively engage with China on a host of issues, Romney has promised to take a harder line and challenge the Chinese over mercantilist trade policies that violate World Trade Organization agreements, including Beijing’s currency manipulation and indifference to intellectual-property rights. China’s systematic exploitation of other economies amounts to a direct
assault on American jobs, the Romney campaign argues. 



A former governor, Romney has no real foreign-affairs record. If elected, he promises to cut the foreign-aid budget, a position that resonates with House Republicans, who recently advocated trimming Obama’s request 9 percent by slashing economic aid and contributions to the United Nations and the World Bank. Advisers say that Romney would subject foreign aid to an annual review that closely scrutinizes support for nations such as Pakistan, which is working at cross-purposes with the United States in neighboring Afghanistan.

Romney has promised to label China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency if Beijing does not move quickly to float its currency. “If you are not willing to stand up to China, you will get run over by China, and that’s what’s happened for 20 years,” he says.



John Lehman: Romney’s advisers cast his philosophy as reminiscent of President Reagan’s “peace through strength” approach, so having Reagan-era Navy Secretary Lehman on board makes sense. He may be behind Romney’s pledge to increase Navy shipbuilding from nine to 15 ships a year.

Richard Williamson: A lawyer and former ambassador, Williamson has served three Republican presidents, including a stint in the Reagan White House and as George W. Bush’s special envoy to Sudan. He has written seven books, most recently American Primacy and Multilateral Cooperation.

Robert Kagan: Frequently associated with the neoconservative movement, Kagan wrote The World America Made, a refutation of the narrative of American decline. This book is Kagan’s most recent and fortifies Romney’s foreign-policy philosophy of “American exceptionalism.”

Kerry Healey: One of Romney’s longest-serving and most trusted aides, Healey was his lieutenant governor in Massachusetts and is now a foreign-policy adviser.

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