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Is There Much Difference Between the Candidates on Foreign Policy?

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

Obama Vs Romney. Photo Courtsesy Malwack, CC BY-SA.

While the economy has been the foremost issue of this presidential campaign, foreign policy still matters. As I’ve argued previously, foreign policy shapes voter evaluations of the presidential candidates and ultimately influence how they will cast their ballot on the election day. Furthermore, a recent Foreign Policy Initiative poll of 1,000 randomly selected likely voters found that an overwhelming majority (97 percent) believe that readiness to be commander in chief is an important qualification for the White House.

This week, Mitt Romney sought to convey and convince voters of his ability to lead the country in foreign affairs by delivering a major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute. Moreover, the address sought to provide a comprehensive critique of President Barack Obama’s foreign and national security policy and to paint a real choice between the candidates in this election. In a conference call ahead of the address, foreign policy advisors Richard Williamson, Alex Wong and Eliot Cohen sought to frame Romney’s foreign policy in the “bipartisan tradition of peace through strength” pursued by presidents from Harry Truman, to John Kennedy, to Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Advisors attempted to frame Barack Obama as a Jimmy Carter with a weak and partisan foreign policy, a line of attack Williamson in particular has pursued for some time. However, others, such as Michael Lind  of the New America foundation, have noted the influence of the Republican tradition “in the Obama administration's cost-conscious, realist foreign policy.” So, how much difference is there between the candidates on foreign policy issues? While there are some policy differences between the candidates, there is largely a consensus between them on a big government approach to foreign policy and in support of broad executive power in this domain.

Just as Romney is criticizing Obama’s foreign and national security policy in this election, recall that so too did Obama criticize Bush’s policy in 2008. And just as Romney has not provided many policy specifics, Obama did not enter office with an articulated philosophy for a foreign policy doctrine, preferring instead bureaucratic efficiency and responding to events on an individual basis. Yet, despite Obama’s critiques of Bush, in the wake of the Arab Spring there has been an evolution in Obama’s approach to foreign policy towards an idealism resembling that of his predecessor. Even Romney advisor Eliot Cohen has noted the dominant continuities in foreign policy between the Bush and Obama administrations and he has criticized the left for being critical of Bush while supporting Obama. Furthermore, liberals who criticized George W. Bush’s national security policies - especially with regards to civil liberties, torture and war – have also largely seen continuation of those policies under President Obama and are equally critical of his use of executive power.

As his speech on Monday and other statements reveal, we’re not likely to see much difference in national security and foreign policy or in the use of executive power in this domain under a Romney administration. Indeed, as Romney made explicit on Monday, he supports an assertive leadership role for the United States in the world and believes it is the President’s job to lead these efforts:

It is the responsibility of our President to use America's great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events… I am running for President because I believe the leader of the free world has a duty, to our citizens, and to our friends everywhere, to use America's great influence—wisely, with solemnity and without false pride, but also firmly and actively—to shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict, and make the world better—not perfect, but better.

Although Romney was critiquing the President for “leading from behind” (a phrase coined by an Obama advisor), the phrase conveys not the administration’s policy successes or failures, but rather Obama’s deferential style and reticence in the Oval Office.

Romney also criticized the administration’s handling of Iran’s nuclear program. Yet he did not draw a stark red line, even though Romney and his advisors have accused Obama of failing to demonstrate that the United States is willing to use a military option if Iran does not halt its efforts. Instead Romney articulated essentially the same strategy of both the Bush and Obama administrations, namely employing tougher sanctions.

While Romney criticized the President’s approach to Afghanistan, he again did not provide specifics, but instead said he will “evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders.” Yet, on Afghanistan, the candidates positions are very similar and both call for turning control over. The Obama administration agreed to turn over control to Afghan forces by 2014 and Romney has reiterated his support for a target withdrawal date of 2014. Both candidates have also acknowledged the role of Pakistan. While the Obama administrations' use of drone strikes (begun under the Bush administration) have caused diplomatic tension and public resentment in Pakistan, Romney affirmed on Monday that drones are important tools of warfare, so don’t expect much change on this account either. However, while the Obama administration has said it will pursue “a negotiated peace” with the Taliban, Romney has said he will not negotiate with the Taliban.

Romney also changed his position on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Although Romney proclaimed in a leaked video of a closed door fundraiser that he did not believe in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and that Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel,” on Monday Romney promised:

I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.

While Romney called for greater American leadership in the Middle East, he stopped short of supporting Bush-era interventions. Romney did however diverge from the President Obama on Syria, saying that will ensure that members of the opposition “obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets.”

Over the next couple of weeks, foreign and national security policy will likely continue to play an important role in establishing the leadership credentials of the candidates. Foreign policy will be included in the Vice Presidential debate on Thursday, as well as in the remaining two debates among the presidential candidates. The expansion and unchecked power of the executive in the realm of foreign and national security and implications for democratic governance should be at the center of these debates. Unfortunately, it is not likely since both presidential candidates largely favor a big government approach and strong role for the executive.

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