Less than a month before an American Presidential Election that nearly everyone expects will be decided by the economy, the past week has seen foreign policy issues elevated to the forefront of the race. This was prompted by Mitt Romney’s foreign policy speech in Virginia at the beginning of last week, followed by both sides engaging on foreign policy issues in the press, think tank circuit, and during the Vice Presidential Debate. Foreign policy issues will continue receiving attention tonight during the 2nd Presidential debate when the moderator will cover both foreign and domestic policy.
Still reeling from the President’s disastrous performance in the first debate, the Obama campaign has sought to exploit the attention being given to foreign policy issues by deriding Romney’s speech and larger approach to the topic. To this end they have offered a number of particular criticisms, including that Romney is: unqualified to be commander-in-chief, unaware that the Cold War has ended, long on rhetoric and grandiose but lacking in nuisance and specificity, constantly changing his positions on key issues for political expediency, and wedded to the same hardline neoconservative foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration.
Yet the criticism that has seemed to be most frequently leveled against Romney’s foreign policy is that he differs little from President Obama on the key issues being discussed. For example, three top national security advisors to the Obama campaign, recently argued “Beyond Romney's cowboy rhetoric, there are zero actual policy differences with Obama on Iran.” Vice President Biden echoed this sentiment when discussing Syria in last week’s debate, when he stated, “Now, every time the governor is asked about [Syria]… he goes up with a whole lot of verbiage, but when he gets pressed he says, no, he would not do anything different than [what] we are doing now.”
Zack Beauchamp has gone further on Think Progress, the popular blog of the Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress, by outlining four issues where Romney’s positions are “identical” to the Obama administration: Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Free Trade.
There’s good reason for this– on many of the most prevalent foreign policy issues, there is considerable congruence between Governor Romney and President Obama’s positions. What is puzzling, however, is that the Obama camp has been so fond of highlighting this, while the Romney campaign has been so staunch in disputing it.
Despite the expectation that it will not matter much on Election Day, foreign policy and national security have long been considered some of the only areas where the President held a clear advantage over his GOP opponents. After all, the Obama administration has consistently polled relatively well on these issues with the American people, while the GOP ticket is one of the least experienced in terms of foreign policy in modern times.
Therefore, by conceding that a Romney administration would continue many of America’s current policies, the Obama camp is, however unwittingly, implicitly conceding any advantage it may have had in this area. If Americans harbored any concerns about Romney’s competency as Commander-in-Chief, they should take comfort in knowing that the former Governor would continue many of the policies they currently support, and is apparently able to recognize a good policy when presented with one. Voters should therefore be free to concentrate on how the candidates fare on other issues like the economy.
By the same token, it is puzzling to see the Romney campaign go to such great lengths to try and differentiate its foreign policy from the current administration. Indeed, long before the election season got underway, Romney began this effort by publishing a book and a number of op-eds that were highly critical of Obama’s handling of America’s foreign affairs.
It is perfectly understandable that Romney would seek to contrast himself from Obama on foreign policy before and during the Primaries, given his need to appeal to a conservative Republican base. But why he is continuing this effort now that the general election is upon us is less clear.
To begin with, Romney’s record opposing Obama’s foreign policy has been remarkably unsuccessful. To cite just one example, Romney’s critique of the New START treaty with Russia was widely mocked by the arms control community, with one respected expert writing, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and—let's not mince words—thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney's attack on the New START treaty.”
Even if the former Governor had a better grasp on these issues, it’s not clear how much political gain there is to be had. After all, as noted above, the American people generally support Barack Obama’s handling of foreign affairs. Criticizing these policies therefore offers minimal utility at best.
Instead, Romney would likely benefit more by offering limited praise to the President on some foreign policy issues. Despite the highly polarized nature of their political system, Americans generally wants their politicians to be willing to reach across the political aisle. Romney certainly understands this as he has been highlighting his prior experience working with a Democratic Legislature when he was Governor of Massachusetts.
In the context of foreign policy issues, Romney could have conveyed this same message on a number of issues. For example, he could have praised Obama for reprioritizing the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the bold decision to approve a risky raid, even as he pledged that a Romney administration would refocus the fight against al-Qaeda in light of the recent Benghazi attacks. Similarly, Romney could praise the President for putting in place unprecedented sanctions on Iran, even while promising to further increase the pressure against the Islamic Republic given its refusal to abandon its uranium enrichment program.
This would have the advantage of undermining any attacks the Obama team could hope to mount on Romney’s foreign policy, and further marginalizing the issue from the campaign. Furthermore, it would help combat the impression many Americans hold of Romney as an unprincipled politician willing to go to any length to further his political ambitions. Given the limited gains there are to be had in foreign policy to begin this, these advantages might be the most Romney could ask for.
Zachary Keck is Assistant Editor of The Diplomat. You can follow him on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.