Home The Washington Diplomat October 2012 Foreign Policy Rears Its Head In U.S. Presidential Election

Foreign Policy Rears Its Head In U.S. Presidential Election

Foreign Policy Rears Its Head In U.S. Presidential Election

The world is paying close attention to the U.S. presidential campaign, but that doesn’t mean American voters are necessarily devoting that much attention to world affairs, given their preoccupation with the stagnant economy.

The conventional wisdom was that this year foreign policy would play a far more diminished role compared to previous elections, but the world has a way of demanding attention. A tragic example of this was the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues in an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month by Muslim protesters angry over an American-made video denigrating the prophet Mohammad.

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney wasted no time pouncing on President Barack Obama, saying that a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo urging religious respect — made prior to protesters breaching that mission — amounted to “an apology for American principles.” Other prominent Republicans, however, distanced themselves from that line of attack, perhaps not wanting to politicize the first death of an American envoy abroad in more than two decades.

But in a neck-and-neck race, foreign policy will inevitably be subject to politics. As of press time, the crude video, which U.S. officials have denounced, had spawned anti-American protests in more than two dozen nations, vaulting the Arab Spring to the forefront of the election, even as job figures continued to paint a grim economic picture for many Americans.

If yet another international crisis erupts — Israel strikes Iran, thereby spiking gas prices, North Korea makes a provocative move on the Korean peninsula, or the euro tanks — the optics of the campaign are bound to shift. And the challenger always has the luxury of lambasting the incumbent no matter what course of action they take.

Romney has seized on the Arab protests to hammer home his point that Obama is a weak, feckless leader and the “second coming of Jimmy Carter.” Whether those charges stick against the man who took down Osama bin Laden remains to be seen, however.

And whether they resonant with Americans — 23 million of whom are unemployed — also remains to be seen. The upheaval abroad may not even register if the protests peter out while the economy continues to slide.

Yet the overriding domestic focus of this election isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. For Americans — and voters worldwide — what’s going on in other nations often takes a backseat to what’s happening in their own backyards. And while potential commanders in chief need to prove their foreign policy mettle, that’s just one of a number of strengths they need to show.

In 1999, candidate George W. Bush couldn’t correctly name the leaders of India, Pakistan or Chechnya, but won the election anyway. And a host of other politicians on both sides of aisle have failed foreign policy pop quizzes over the years — some, like Herman Cain’s infamous “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan” moment, spectacularly so. But most have lived to campaign another day.

Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the D.C.-based Atlantic Council, says the public doesn’t necessarily expect candidates to have foreign policy experience or even necessarily a strong command of every conceivable issue around the globe.

“The issue is national security credibility,” he said. “At the end of the day, the judgment of the American electorate will be about, can this person be trusted as commander in chief and leader of the free world? The issue of national security credibility will be in play for voters more than where the candidates are on China or Iran or any specific foreign policy issue.”

On that front, Democrats hold the upper hand in what traditionally has been a Republican stronghold. Public opinion polls consistently show that Obama has a 10 to 15 point advantage over Romney on foreign policy, with Americans giving the commander in chief high marks for his stewardship of the war on terrorism, improving America’s image overseas, the Asian pivot, getting U.S. troops out of Iraq, and of course killing bin Laden.

Experts say Obama has outflanked the GOP in the foreign affairs arena with an aggressive centrist approach that has surprised and disappointed some on the left, particularly on issues such as the escalated campaign of drone strikes and his failure to close Guantanamo as promised.

Despite the president’s surprisingly conservative approach in some quarters, the GOP has attempted to paint him as too soft on the Arab world, Russia, China and Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

Credit: U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Lance Cpl. Jason Morrison
U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Adam Grajewski takes part in a security patrol in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Even though 68,000 Americans are still fighting in Afghanistan, the war has barely registered as an issue in the 2012 presidential race, a reflection of the public’s fatigue with U.S. military adventures abroad.

“Generally in American politics, Republicans accuse Democrats of being feckless and Democrats accuse Republicans of being reckless,” said James Lindsay, director of studies and senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Gov. Romney has accused the president of coddling our adversaries and throwing our allies under the bus, dithering when he should have acted, and not spending enough on defense. What’s remarkable is that the American public is giving the nod to a Democratic candidate on foreign policy — that is very unusual.”

Perhaps that’s why Romney devoted just 200 words to foreign affairs and notably failed to mention the war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention. That’s to say nothing of Iraq — akin to kryptonite for the Republican Party this election, given that a strong majority of Americans are perfectly fine with extricating U.S. troops from both wars (a Washington Post-ABC poll late last year showed that nearly eight in 10 Americans approved of Obama’s decision to remove combat troops from Iraq). In fact, Romney became the first GOP candidate to not bring up the subject of war in his acceptance speech since 1952.

Despite the fact that President Obama has a foreign policy record to campaign on, while Romney generally lacks international credentials (quite common for today’s presidential contenders; Obama too was a foreign policy neophyte), the challenger still has an institutional advantage in that he can castigate countries like Egypt, China and Russia, as Romney has done, without having to deal with the consequences in the way a sitting president has to.

On that note, many observers say that beyond the rhetorical bluster, Romney and Obama’s foreign policy visions don’t differ all that much, as Peter Baker argued in the New York Times article “Romney and Obama Strain to Show Gap on Foreign Policy.”

“They both would press the battle against Al Qaeda through drones and special operations while drawing down troops in Afghanistan. They both would try to stop Iran’s nuclear program through sanctions and negotiations without ruling out a military option. They both would support rebels in Syria while keeping American forces out of the conflict,” Baker wrote. “Even in areas where Mr. Romney has been most critical, like Israel, Russia and China, it is not entirely clear what he would do differently.”

Perhaps that’s because, despite the barrage of ads and convention speeches, policy details have been in short supply this campaign season. Romney has pounded Obama over gauzy issues such as American exceptionalism and the hackneyed “leading from behind” charge, saying he would lead from the front, though he hasn’t clarified what that entails. Would he take the hawkish route advocated by John Bolton, for instance, or the more moderate tack of Robert Zoellick, both of whom are advisors to his campaign?

Obama has a clear track record that can be scrutinized, but he too has failed to clarify what exactly he would do if he won a second term. Neither candidate wants to stick their neck out and risk getting bogged down in specifics that might alienate crucial swing voters. Moreover, soaring foreign policy pledges made on the campaign trail don’t often translate into concrete action once in office. Romney projects a far more confrontational tone, but whether he’d actually implement hard-line policies is anyone’s guess.

That being said, there are some stark contrasts in policy, especially in the critical national security domain, that distinguish the two candidates and might shape the 45th president’s agenda. These differences, outlined below, will most likely emerge in the presidential debate on Oct. 22. And it’s important to remember that this final debate will focus on foreign policy, so the last impression many voters will have before they cast their ballots will be on world affairs.


With Israel itching to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, the specter of war looms large for the next U.S. president, whoever he is.

Early in his administration, President Obama made overtures to engage the Iranian regime, but the rapprochement strategy was shelved after Tehran’s brutal crackdown on demonstrators following the country’s disputed 2009 presidential election.

After a series of troubling reports on Iran’s nuclear weapons program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Obama galvanized an international coalition to impose harsh sanctions on Iran that included unprecedented measures aimed at choking off the oil-rich country’s banking and petrochemical sectors. (The U.S. also reportedly supported a covert sabotage campaign, along with Israel, targeting Iran’s nuclear program.)

Negotiations with Iran, however, remain at loggerheads, though the White House hasn’t given up on its “duel-track” approach, saying it will continue to put the squeeze on Iran’s economy but that there is still time for diplomacy to bear fruit.

Supporters of the administration say the crippling sanctions — and the international support behind them — would not have been possible without that initial outreach to Tehran. Republicans counter that Obama’s approach was dangerously naïve and exposed the futility of trying to engage America’s enemies.

Romney has repeatedly derided Obama on Iran while vowing that the Islamic republic will not obtain the capability to build a bomb if he’s elected.

“If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” Romney has said point blank.

But he hasn’t specified how he would prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, and both candidates have stated that a military option remains on the table.

Romney though has argued that Obama doesn’t carry the same credible threat of force as he does. His more aggressive stance has also won praise in Israel, where, during a summertime trip, Romney declared that if Israel acts unilaterally to strike Iran, he “would respect that decision.”

He’s also insisted that his red line for military action would be Iran developing nuclear enrichment “capability” rather than a weapon — unlike the administration, which has so far refused to draw that distinction and says there’s no evidence that Iranian leaders have made the decision to build a bomb. And even then, officials say there would be ample time to stop the regime from crossing the weapons threshold.

The Israelis adamantly disagree, and Romney’s “red line” matches up well with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent insistence that the United States set clear conditions and deadlines that, if crossed, would provoke a military response. The administration so far has refused to be boxed into any ultimatums that could derail negotiations, but Netanyahu hasn’t let up on his demands, rendering Iran and the U.S.-Israel relationship a major issue on the campaign trail — most likely to Romney’s delight.


Indeed, Romney’s most frequent and harshest foreign policy criticism of the president has been his contention that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus” — a contention that could gain more traction if Israel keeps pushing the “red line” debate.

Most recently, Romney slammed Obama for not meeting with Netanyahu at the U.N. General Assembly in September — which the White House dismissed as a scheduling conflict.

Yet it’s clear that Obama and Netanyahu have not seen eye to eye over the last four years. Obama in fact was once accidentally caught on tape commiserating with French President Nicolas Sarkozy about how difficult it was to work with the Israeli prime minister.

The two butted heads early on when Obama pushed the Israelis to freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and later when he said that peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians should be based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps (despite the uproar, Obama hasn’t deviated from longstanding U.S. policy toward the conflict).

While Obama’s personal relationship with Netanyahu may not be close, his administration’s record on Israel has been broadly supportive. Despite its small size, Israel remains America’s leading recipient of foreign aid and that assistance has only grown under Obama’s watch. In fact, he’s supported hundreds of millions of dollars to provide Israel with rocket-defense systems such as David’s Sling, Arrow and Iron Dome to help Israel protect itself against rocket attacks from Gaza and a possible Iran counterstrike.

The generally supportive line toward Israel was established in the days just prior to Obama’s inauguration, when Israel launched an attack on Gaza in retaliation for missile strikes that resulted in well over 1,000 Palestinian casualties, many of them civilian. Israel’s conduct in the war was roundly condemned in the court of world opinion but Obama remained mostly silent.

After more or less abandoning efforts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Obama administration has occasionally offered mild rebukes of Israeli settlement expansion but has repeatedly expended diplomatic capital to advance Israel’s interests and shield it from criticism at the United Nations — such as blocking the Palestinians’ 2011 bid for U.N. membership. And his position on peace talks is essentially the same as every other U.S. administration.

There are signs, however, that if elected, Romney would shed any pretense of the U.S. being an honest broker and clearly side with Israel in the long-running conflict. He’s said he would drop any demands for a settlement moratorium and promised to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which he declared to be the capital of the Jewish state, even though U.S. policy says its status should be determined through negotiations. Such declarations stand in contrast to the strange waffling at the Democratic National Convention over whether to affirm Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in the DNC platform.


Both candidates recognize that the public has little enthusiasm for America’s participation in the longest war in its history. But Romney, whose position on issues such as pursuing militants in Pakistan and timetables for a U.S. withdrawal have seemingly evolved over time (and often overlapped with Obama’s), has criticized the president for his plan to remove 33,000 troops from Afghanistan that were part of his “surge” plan. Romney has also ruled out negotiating with the Taliban as an exit strategy for the war.

President Obama has pledged to withdraw all U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by September 2014, while Romney has vaguely indicated that he plans to seek the counsel of the generals on the ground after he’s elected, though he too has mentioned the 2014 deadline.

Perhaps that’s why Romney has for the most part steered clear of Afghanistan during campaigning, even though 68,000 Americans are still fighting in the country. That war was also launched in part to hunt down the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and on that front, it’s difficult for Romney to rob Obama of his foreign policy trump card.

At the Democratic National Convention in September, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and others played up the fact that Obama gave the order that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

“Ask Osama bin Laden if he’s better off now than he was four years ago,” Kerry said in one of the convention’s more memorable zingers. It was an interesting turnaround for the former presidential hopeful and for the Democratic Party as a whole, as Politico’s Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen wrote in “The Kerry-ization of Mitt Romney.”

“Romney — whose convention speech didn’t include a salute to the troops or a reference to Afghanistan … is getting hit almost daily now by Democratic attacks that he is wobbly and therefore untrustworthy on national security. It’s the same critique Republicans used to undermine Kerry to devastating effect eight years ago,” they wrote.

But eight years — let alone 11 years, the length of the Afghan war — is a long time, and reviving the interventionist policies of the Bush years is dangerous territory for Romney. A 2012 Chicago Council Survey of American Public Opinion and Foreign Policy released in September, for instance, showed that while Americans still want the United States to play an active part in world affairs, “given the difficulty and cost in lives and treasure of reshaping events in far-off places and the bruising impact of the financial crisis and its aftermath, Americans have become increasingly selective about how and where to engage in the world.”

The Arab Spring

Perhaps no other issue will test the next president’s engagement policy more than the Arab Spring, as U.S. missions abroad come under fire by angry Muslim protesters, violence continues to roil Syria, and the United States must find its footing with new leaders in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia. If anything, the Arab uprisings have laid bare the limits of U.S. influence in the region — a challenge for any president.

Credit: UN Photo / Iason Foounten
Demonstrators protest the use of weapons by rebel militias in Tripoli and the general atmosphere of lawlessness in Libya — whose regime change, on the cheap, had been a feather in President Obama’s foreign policy cap, until an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi exposed the challenges that the new government faces in trying to stabilize the country.

Obama has eschewed his predecessor’s push to spread democracy in the Arab world — saying, “No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other” — and so far he’s resisted becoming sucked into Syria’s civil war, even though it has claimed an estimated 20,000 lives. The administration’s diplomatic efforts at the United Nations to resolve the conflict went nowhere, and it has refused to provide the country’s inchoate rebels with weapons to battle President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, leaving that to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The president enjoyed more diplomatic success with Libya, securing a U.N.-authorized, NATO-led intervention that ultimately dislodged Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi from power (on the cheap, too, with an estimated U.S. price tag of $1 billion, compared to $1 trillion for Iraq). But Libya was also a double-edged sword. The protests that killed Ambassador Stevens raised serious questions about stability in that war-torn nation (although Libya remains one of the more pro-American governments in the region).

Moreover, Russia was incensed by the NATO mission that helped rebels kill Qaddafi, arguing that regime change was not part of the original deal. Whether it’s retribution or reticence, Moscow has since blocked firm U.N. action on Syria, warning it could open the doors to another Western intervention (which, incidentally, might topple one of Moscow’s closest allies).

Elsewhere in the region, the president has pursued a cautious, calculated strategy as traditional U.S. alliances have been upended in the name of greater democracy for Arab citizens. His administration has tentatively reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, offering financial assistance and deft relief to the lynchpin Arab country as long as it honors its peace agreement with Israel and doesn’t impose a strict version of Islamic governance. In the wake of the embassy protests, Obama has described the Brotherhood leadership as neither friend nor foe. The State Department has also quietly led an effort to bolster private investment and encourage good governance in transitioning Arab nations such as Tunisia.

But Romney and his advisors have blasted Obama for what they call an incoherent, tepid response to the Arab Spring, arguing it betrays America’s core values of promoting freedom and human rights.

“Maybe if [Obama] had continued to support democracy and civil society in these countries the way that Bush did, the way they should, maybe the more moderate forces would have been better prepared to compete for political power,” Romney senior foreign policy advisor Rich Williamson told The Cable’s Josh Rogin just before the attack in Libya that killed four U.S. diplomats.

Romney has echoed that sentiment, but he hasn’t given a full-throated endorsement of Bush’s “freedom agenda” either — mindful of two costly invasions in Muslim nations that remain deeply unpopular with a war-weary, cash-strapped American public.

The bloodbath in Syria might force the next president’s hand, however. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has called for a more muscular U.S. response, but thus far, Romney hasn’t quite followed suit, though he has stated that the U.S. should “work with partners to organize and arm Syrian opposition groups.”

In a strange way, by blocking progress at the U.N., Russia has provided diplomatic cover not only for Syria’s beleaguered president, but also for Obama and Romney, neither of whom has spent much time outlining how or if they’d try to contain the ongoing carnage in Syria.


Romney’s late March statement that Russia was America’s “number-one geopolitical foe” was mocked by a variety of speakers at the Democratic convention, including the president, who called it a “Cold War mind-warp.” But the comment may be emblematic of Romney’s attempts to fire up his base with tough talk reminiscent of just that — the Cold War.

The White House’s relations with Russia have been challenging, to say the least, particularly in light of President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian tendencies and his determination to thwart efforts to sanction Syria and other rogue regimes at the U.N. Security Council.

But it’s the area of nuclear weapons and missile defense where Romney and Obama are clearly split. As Romney himself quipped, he would “reset the reset” that’s been a hallmark of Obama’s relations with Russia.

In particular, Romney has criticized the president for backing off his predecessor’s plans to build a long-range missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Russia strenuously opposed (a position Romney highlighted by his trip to Poland this summer). Obama, however, says his reconfigured, phased-in system is more technologically sound and will better protect Europe against an Iranian missile attack.

Romney has also firmly come out against the New Start treaty with Russia that cut both countries’ nuclear launchers by half, accusing Obama of allowing the Russians to expand their nuclear arsenal while reducing our own without reciprocal concessions.

In addition, Romney opposed Russia’s long-awaited accession to the World Trade Organization, while Obama says Russia’s entrance into the trade bloc will benefit U.S. businesses.

For its part, the Russian press has lashed out at the Republicans for their “backward thinking and confrontational posturing,” as the Voice of Russia’s John Robles put it recently.


China’s state-run press hasn’t exactly warmed up to Romney either. China Daily derisively called his policies “an outdated manifestation of a Cold War mentality.”

Yet denunciations by the Russian or Chinese media — not exactly pillars of journalistic integrity — aren’t likely to have an impact on American voters. In fact, they may be a badge of honor for Romney, who says Obama has failed to confront China over its human rights abuses and unfair trade practices.

In a 2011 Washington Post op-ed, Romney accused China of “systematic exploitation of other economies” because of its intellectual property theft, domestic subsidization and currency manipulation that has kept the yuan artificially low so Chinese exports are cheaper.

To that end, Romney has said that as soon as he enters office, he would brand China a currency manipulator. But such first-day promises, rarely ever kept, could conflict with Romney’s own business instincts because the move would set off a trade war between the two economic giants. Moreover, China-bashing has become routine for most candidates, who often change their tune once elected.

For his part, Obama has tried to avoid major blowups with China, recognizing that it’s America’s largest creditor and a key player in the United Nations and other multilateral bodies. Officials say the president’s quiet push on the currency issue prodded Beijing to relax currency controls and let the yuan gradually rise against the dollar over the last two years.

The administration has also broached the topic of human rights, albeit not very loudly (most notably taking in Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng), and criticized economic imbalances, lodging complaints against China at the World Trade Organization (the most recent one, filed right before a campaign stop in Ohio, accused Beijing of subsidizing its auto and auto parts industries to the detriment of American manufacturers). But the overriding message has been that the U.S. welcomes China’s rise as an emerging power — with the caveat that it be a responsible stakeholder in the global system.

Still, Obama has ruffled feathers in Beijing with his Asian pivot that’s shifting military resources to the Asia-Pacific region. While the administration says the move is a natural recognition of Asia’s growing clout, Obama is clearly taking advantage of China’s aggressive posturing in regional disputes over islands in the South China Sea to cement partnerships with nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam and to reassert America’s presence as a Pacific power.

Likewise, Romney says he would work to prevent Chinese hegemony in the region with an expanded naval presence, saying that “in the face of China’s accelerated military build-up, the United States and our allies must maintain appropriate military capabilities to discourage any aggressive or coercive behavior by China against its neighbors.”


Charting traditional GOP terrain, Romney has pledged to significantly increase defense spending, claiming that Obama has “put America on course toward a ‘hollow’ force.”

He’s slammed the administration for the sequestration cuts set to take hold at the end of the year, which would shave $500 billion from the Pentagon’s budget over the next 10 years. Republicans argue the cuts would devastate the Defense Department and could cost up to 1 million jobs in the security sector.

But there’s plenty of blame to go around for those across-the-board cuts, which would also slash nondefense spending. The dreaded sequestration is the result of the failure of a congressional “supercommittee” to agree on ways to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.2 trillion over 10 years. That supercommittee itself was formed in response to the economic showdown sparked by Republicans’ refusal to raise the country’s debt ceiling last summer. Romney’s vice presidential pick, Paul Ryan, was on that supercommittee, which deadlocked over the issue of tax revenues, and he also voted for the bipartisan deal that included automatic cuts to defense spending in return for raising the nation’s borrowing limit.

Obama has vowed that even if the country goes off the so-called fiscal cliff in January, U.S. troops would be protected from sequestration cuts and national security would not be compromised. Nevertheless, the president has clearly targeted the Pentagon for significant cuts over the next decade — on top of the sequestration — to create a more nimble force that better reflects the fact that the country is no longer waging two land wars (defense spending has nearly doubled since 9/11).

“Yes, as today’s wars end, our military, and our Air Force, will be leaner,” he said at an Air Force Academy graduation last May. But he added: “We’ll keep our military, and our Air Force, fast and flexible and versatile. We will maintain our military superiority in all areas: air, land, sea, space and cyber.”

Romney would take the opposite path and raise defense spending (while most likely targeting diplomacy and development for steep cuts). He’s pledged to invest in modernizing military infrastructure and weapons systems, add 100,000 more active-duty personnel, possibly keep troops in Afghanistan longer if the military brass advised it, and be more open to use military force in hotspots such as Iran and Syria.

“The Obama administration is seeking to reap a ‘peace dividend’ when we are not at peace and when the dangers to our security are mounting,” he warned.

To that end, Romney would set a defense-spending floor of 4 percent of GDP, but critics say that level would blow a hole in the deficit, especially without draconian cuts to all other areas of federal spending. Libertarian Republican Ron Paul says Romney’s plan could boost defense spending by more than $2.1 trillion over the next 10 years.

In President Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, he countered that Romney was proposing to “spend more money on military hardware that our joint chiefs don’t even want,” while pledging that he’d “use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work— rebuilding roads and bridges, schools and runways.”

That plea may resonate with voters of all political stripes. A poll earlier this year by the Program for Public Consultation in collaboration with the Stimson Center and Center for Public Integrity showed that three quarters of Americans favor cutting defense to reduce the deficit — and this majority was bipartisan: 67 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats were ready to trim Pentagon spending, long considered a sacred cow for both parties.

But the ultimate verdict will come on Nov. 2, and despite some very real differences on how the two candidates might interact with the world, polls have consistently revealed another important statistic: Obama and Romney are in a virtual dead heat for the U.S. presidency.

About the Author

Dave Seminara is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and a former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.