Romney’s conception of when to use American military power has been less easy to discern. In the early days of the Libyan military intervention, he criticized Obama for ruling out the use of ground forces, and he mockingly told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the U.S. was “following France into Libya” instead of serving as “the leader of the world.” One month later, Romney said that Obama’s call for Qaddafi’s departure had shifted the U.S. mission there from protecting Libyan civilians to de facto regime change, deriding the unstated objective as an example of “mission creep and mission muddle.” The GOP contender initially conceded that Obama deserved some credit for Qaddafi’s eventual fall; today, his campaign asserts that the credit belongs to the Libyan people, not to the president.
Romney also differs with Obama on Syria, although the degree of difference is not quite as significant as his campaign contends. The former governor argues that the United States should directly train, fund, and arm the Syrian rebels, who are badly outgunned by forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration is providing nonlethal aid to the opposition forces but opposes giving them weapons because of uncertainty about the composition of the rebel forces and their possible ties to al-Qaida. Romney’s GOP Senate allies, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have long argued that the United States should carry out air strikes on targets inside Syria. Neither Obama nor Romney wants to go that far.
IRAN AND AFGHANISTAN
The biggest and most complicated national-security questions of the day are the ones, surprisingly, where there is the least daylight between the two candidates.
Take Iran, which both candidates believe is pursuing nuclear weapons. During a campaign event in Georgia last month, Romney said that Obama’s efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions had failed, and he bluntly declared, “If Barack Obama is reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.” Still, although Romney has said he would consider using military force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he stopped short of promising to do so; Obama’s position is the same. Romney has promised to deploy carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, and he has accused Obama of failing to send adequate military resources to the region to counter Iran. Obama has, however, sharply increased naval operations in the Gulf, deployed tens of thousands of troops to the region, and helped to fund the development of new missile-defense systems in Israel. The president has also agreed to sell dozens of F-15s to Saudi Arabia, Iran’s strategic opponent, as part of the largest foreign arms sale in American history.
Romney supported—and the White House initially opposed, but ultimately signed—legislation to impose sanctions on Iran’s central bank. The White House now acknowledges that the measures have driven Iran’s currency to record lows and savaged the country’s economy. When the White House dispatched Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to warn Israel that a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would risk destabilizing the region, Romney dismissed the effort as mere delaying, rather than stopping, Iran’s nuclear push. (During the Bush years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen delivered the same warnings to the Israelis.)
The two candidates’ differences over Afghanistan are also less significant than they might appear. Romney has bashed Obama for ignoring the advice of his generals and setting an 18-month deadline for beginning to remove the surge troops from Afghanistan. He also says he opposes peace talks with the Taliban, a central part of the White House’s exit strategy from Afghanistan.
The political broadsides obscure the fact that the two men see eye to eye on the timing of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, far and away the most important and most politically sensitive aspect of the entire Afghan debate. Even though Romney believes that Obama erred by announcing a withdrawal time line, he supports the administration’s plans to remove virtually all American troops by the end of 2014. The GOP nominee has said he wants U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible and argues that the Afghan security forces need to assume more responsibility as quickly as possible. Obama’s has said virtually the same.
THE WORLD AHEAD
Certainly, a Romney White House and a second-term Obama administration would approach national security differently. Romney would add more money to the Pentagon’s coffers; Obama would cut defense spending by as much as $1 billion over the next decade. Romney would arm the Syrian rebels if Assad remained in power and would consider air strikes; Obama would likely continue to rely on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. More broadly, Romney would seek to preserve the long-standing American role in policing the world—alone if necessary—while Obama would continue to try to share the risks and costs with allies. Differences would be mainly around the margins when it comes to Afghanistan but would be potentially far reaching on Iran.
In a normal election, pundits and voters would be weighing and arguing those differences. This time around, national-security issues have been pushed into the background by the unrelenting national focus on the economy. If campaign appearances and ads are any indication, the two candidates seem perfectly content with that.