Rarely does foreign policy swing a U.S. presidential election one way or another. And with foreign policy taking a back seat to Obama’s handling of the economy, the Romney campaign should be overjoyed. To the Romney campaign’s chagrin, despite some obvious missteps, Obama enjoys higher poll numbers on his handling of foreign policy than his economic stewardship according to national polls. A debate over foreign policy is something that the Obama campaign would relish. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted in May, voters approved of Obama handling of foreign policy 47 percent to 43 percent. That poll complies with an ABC News/Washington Post poll released at about the same time. On Iran, an issue that confounded Obama’s predecessor, Obama fairs reasonably well with voters. 49 percent of voters were “somewhat confident” that Obama could prevent the Iranians from obtaining a nuclear weapon, according to a Fox News poll conducted in February.
With the Romney campaign purportedly planning a foreign policy trip that will take Romney to the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Israel and possibly Afghanistan, the Obama campaign might realize its wish. Obvious parallels will be drawn between Romney’s overseas soiree and the one that then candidate-Obama took during the closing months of the 2008 campaign that the McCain campaign used to paint Obama as a “celebrity” candidate. While the foreign policy trip would bolster Romney’s image as a commander-in-chief the trip holds a certain pitfall. If Romney visits Afghanistan, as some on the right are encouraging him to do, Romney might be pressed to offer a solid Afghan strategy. Up until now Romney has consistently argued that while the Obama administration’s policies have failed in Central Asia, he would rely on his commanders on the ground around which to build a strategy versus laying out one of his own before November.
As the Romney campaign criticizes the president for the phased withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014 as purely political, Obama is on solid footing regardless of whether or not the Afghan army is able to stand on its own. According to a March Washington Post-ABC News poll, 54 percent of voters think that the risks outweigh the rewards of staying and fighting in Afghanistan any longer than 2014. 55 percent of voters want the US military out before the 2014 deadline and only 22 percent want the US military to remain there longer than 2014. During interviews when candidate Romney has criticized Obama’s Iraq policy and the administration’s handling of the Arab Spring for example, the candidate has quickly and wisely pivoted away from foreign policy to the economy realizing that foreign policy is a second or third tier consideration for most voters.
While giving Obama a grade of F “across the board” on foreign policy during an interview with CBS News, he offered minimal praise for the Osama bin Laden raid calling it “terrific” and ignored the drone strikes which have decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership. “When I look at foreign policy — and look at his decisions across the board in foreign policy, I look at the fact that he was looking to have a force of American troops staying in Iraq, securing what had been so won there, with a status of forces agreement. He failed to achieve it,” Romney told CBS News’ Jane Crawford. “In the Middle East, the Arab spring has become the Arab Winter,” Romney continued. “That’s hardly a success. As I look around the world, I have to believe his positions in foreign policy have not communicated American strength and resolve.”
While Romney has consistently hammered home the message that Obama’s economic stewardship has been abysmal Romney’s lack of a foreign policy message has many within the GOP concerned. “He has spoken out on some things, such as the Chinese human rights issue and the threat of Russia (and it is real, let’s not fool ourselves — Putin has always had visions of being a 21st century czar and this guy in the White House has only emboldened him), but we have yet to see him present his vision for America’s role in the world more broadly,” explained one Republican who asked not to be identified in an email to Politico.
However, even when Romney has ventured into foreign policy messaging either to criticize Obama directly or lay out some sort of vision many foreign policy experts have reacted with bemusement. In the case of Chinese human rights and in particular that of Chen Guangcheng, whose fate was largely left undecided until the U.S. State Department was able to negotiate his flight to the United States, Romney’s opportunity to argue that the Obama administration’s policies were a failure was undercut by a negotiated settlement.
Therein lies the problem of going after any administration on foreign policy. Unlike domestic politics, which can be difficult to control, foreign policy is the one area where a president has free rein to pursue a policy course. In the case of Chen Guangcheng, his fate rested on the abilities of the U.S. State Department to negotiate with the Chinese government on his eventual relocation to the United States. For Romney, the danger was that he would offer his own indictment of the administration before the issue was settled.
As Richard A. Oppel, Jr. reported in the New York Times, senior Romney advisors clashed with staffers over whether their candidate should enter the fray and use the issue to hammer the administration on its human rights record and seeding too much ground to the Chinese. “It seemed a ripe opportunity for Mitt Romney: The crisis that unfolded last month over the Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng was a way to hammer President Obama as weak on human rights and unwilling to be assertive with China. Inside the campaign, though, sharp differences emerged among staff members and foreign policy advisers as the crisis deepened and Mr. Chen left the protection of the United States Embassy in Beijing. Some advisers cautioned of the dangers of plunging too quickly into the middle of a fast-moving diplomatic crisis and wanted Mr. Romney to have a political margin of safety in case of a sudden breakthrough,” Richard A. Oppel, Jr. reported in the New York Times. “In the end, Mr. Romney opted for a hard line.”
When addressing Russia, Romney has muddled through his messaging with dire warnings that Russia poses the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States. This can be attributed to Romney’s decision to listen to many neocons within the GOP, many of whom are followers of the Dick Cheney school of thought that subscribes to realism as a black and white geopolitical landscape with few grey areas. Ari Berman writes in The Nation, “Of Romney’s forty identified foreign policy advisers, more than 70 percent worked for Bush. Many hail from the neoconservative wing of the party, were enthusiastic backers of the Iraq War and are proponents of a US or Israeli attack on Iran.”
While it is not uncommon for a candidate to lean on members of former administrations for advice, Romney’s heavy reliance on neoconservatives has some establishment Republicans concerned that he’s receiving shortsighted advice. “I don’t know who all of his advisers are, but I’ve seen some of the names and some of them are quite far to the right. And sometimes they might be in a position to make judgments or recommendations to the candidate that should get a second thought,” Colin Powell said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” And specifically citing Romney’s insistence that Russia is the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe,” Powell suggested, “Come on Mitt, think…that isn’t the case.”
Writing in the Washington Post in July of 2010 as debate surrounding the ratification of the New START Treaty was heating up in the U.S. Senate, Romney wrote, “(Obama’s) New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New-START) with Russia could be his worst foreign policy mistake yet. The treaty as submitted to the Senate should not be ratified…New-START impedes missile defense, our protection from nuclear-proliferating rogue states such as Iran and North Korea…And Russia has expressly reserved the right to walk away from the treaty if it believes that the United States has significantly increased its missile defense capability.”
Perhaps most ominous is Romney’s conclusion that significant nuclear stockpiles are necessary as a deterrent to Russia. “New-START gives Russia a massive nuclear weapon advantage over the United States. The treaty ignores tactical nuclear weapons, where Russia outnumbers us by as much as 10 to 1,” Romney writes. Does Romney believe that a nuclear war with Russia is still a possibility? Romney’s muddled foreign policy message has been to place himself in opposition to every Obama administration policy and initiative from the Arab Spring to U.S.-Russian relations. While, this might be expected, it opens candidate Romney to criticisms that he hasn’t offered any substantive details about what he would do differently as president other than to offer very vague generic “talking points.”
In this regard he might be avoiding Obama’s problem. While not necessarily on par with Hubert Humphrey by promising something to everyone while running for president in 2008 Obama made very substantive campaign promises that never materialized and have continued to haunt him. Comprehensive immigration never saw the light of day, militants captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere are still being housed at Guantanamo Bay and while Obama did see the Affordable Care Act passed into law it was not without spending significant political capital and “Obamacare” very well could contribute to Obama’s defeat in November.
But as November nears, Romney and by extension his campaign will need to fine-tune their argument why a Romney presidency would be more successful than the Obama presidency. While the Obama administration has had many misses they do have some areas that they can argue have been successful as in the complete U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, the bin Laden raid, decreasing the ranks of Al Qaeda, opening the Af-Pak border crossing for NATO and U.S. supplies and a U.S.-Afghan Strategic Partnership Agreement.