Four years ago, a financial crisis stole the presidential election spotlight, launching Senator Obama to a convincing win. The majority of voters were unmoved by foreign policy issues four years ago, and it seems not much has changed. In the current campaign, Americans appear to be giving matters of international peace and security the same weight as scintillating issues like agricultural subsidies.
The election is being fought over the question of who will best address America’s economic woes, leaving little oxygen for a detailed and substantive debate over foreign policy. When Governor Mitt Romney does criticize the President on his use of force and statecraft, it stems more from how best to articulate U.S. interests than from a substantive difference in policy. The onslaught of partisan rhetoric blurs a surprising reality—Romney and Obama advocate near identical policies on Libya, Iran and Syria.
Governor Romney’s primary criticism of the President on foreign affairs seems to be about the tone in which the President addresses foreign audiences. Speaking at the Clinton Global Initiative, Romney repeated a distinction between himself and President Obama, “I will never apologize for America.” This accusation owes its origins to the President’s speech in Cairo, just weeks after his inauguration in 2009, where he delivered an American mea culpa for issues that had corroded international opinion—namely torture of Iraqis at the Abu Ghraib Prison and extrajudicial tribunals at GITMO. The recent rebel attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and Governor Romney’s forceful criticism of the Obama Administration’s response illustrates this rhetorical difference. He argued that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo’s condemnation of a YouTube video that helped ignite protests in Benghazi was inconsistent with U.S. “values.” In another recent campaign skirmish, Romney attacked Obama for declining a meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister; for Romney, the optics of refusing to meet with America’s core regional ally was more offensive than any substantive policy differences relating to Israel.
There is broad agreement between the candidates on when and how to use military force to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. Governor Romney has backed all U.S. military interventions under President Obama and does not believe the United States should employ the use of force against any other state. Policy disagreements are more tactical than strategic—for instance, Romney criticized the President for recalling U.S. forces from Iraq without first negotiating a status of forces agreement and for “telegraphing” the date of U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Romney also criticized Obama for his lack of haste in intervening in Libya but later stated that NATO’s bombing campaign outstretched the UN Security’s Council’s R2P Mandate. President Romney would have taken the same action, and he shares the Administration’s view that a “terrorist act” on the American Consulate should not deter continued U.S. support of Libya.
Despite the critical rhetoric, Governor Romney’s proposals on Iran closely resemble President Obama’s current policy approach. With Iran’s nuclear intentions shrouded in doubt, Romney supports the U.S. led regime of comprehensive sanctions to compel Iran to change course. That clashes with his statement that Iran was “Obama’s greatest foreign policy failing.” Romney squares the blame on Obama for Iran’s march (or slow crawl) into the nuclear fraternity, even though, as president, he promises to employ the same mix of overt and covert pressure to compel a change in behavior.
Given Obama and Romney’s unconditional support of Israel, it is also interesting that both candidates’ position on military strikes against Iran differ with the Israeli leadership’s position. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “red line” is reached when Iran enriches uranium to a level that gives it “breakout capability” or the capacity to make a bomb. Conversely, Obama and Romney’s “red line” is only broached if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon. That suggests a consensus on the narrow criteria that would precipitate U.S. military action. Moreover, it shows how either candidate will have to grapple with the fact that Israel’s more broadly defined “red line,” will be breached before their own will be. To Iran’s west, both candidates have also rejected calls for U.S. military involvement in Syria; it would take the use or transfer of chemical weapons to change that dynamic.
So where does this leave us? Predicting how a presidential candidate will govern is an imperfect science as a president’s foreign policy is often shaped by the unforeseen. Still, given the world today, the similar approaches of President Obama and Governor Romney on central foreign policy challenges belies the view that the two would pursue radically divergent policies.
With relatively few policy differences to highlight, the Romney campaign has focused instead on critiquing the current administration’s tone and attitude towards its allies and adversaries alike. These minor differences will be accentuated by each candidate’s camp when the two go toe-to-toe in the October 22nd foreign policy debate. It will likely fail to convey that foreign policy is the area of greatest consensus in this election.