Obama and Romney’s Foreign Policies: Difference in Words, Not Substance?

It may come as a surprise, given the daily drumbeat of political charge and counter-charge, but it is my impression at this stage of the presidential campaign that the positions of the two candidates have begun to overlap on major foreign policy problems. The differences still remain, of course, accented during their dueling speeches before the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars earlier this week. But, as Mitt Romney moves from the primary season, when he had to fight off many tea-party-type challenges, into the more serious pre-convention phase of the campaign, he has begun to soften his positions on a number of issues, realizing that he will soon be officially anointed as the GOP presidential candidate. He knows he has to look and sound presidential. But even in advance of this moment, Romney’s every word, idea, plan or program is being dissected and diagnosed for clues to the shape and substance of American foreign policy in a Romney administration. What will change? What will remain the same? There is no need to hold your breath: my guess is that not that much will change.

President Obama broke no new ground. Aware that, according to recent polls, veterans are more likely to vote for his opponent than for him, the president pointed to his strong support for veterans and to promises-made and promises-kept in his conduct of foreign policy. “You don’t just have my words,” he said, “you have my deeds.” He promised to withdraw American forces from Iraq, and he did; promised to get Osama bin-Laden, and he did; promised to pull American forces out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and he has begun the process. His point, more political than strategic, was that he feels he deserves credit for a successful foreign policy.

At first blush, Romney’s speech to the VFW, his first serious attempt to explain his foreign policy, was an effort to draw clear distinctions between his view of the world and Obama’s—he wanted to come through as “anything other than Obama”; but a closer read suggests he has begun to move his policy on a number of issues closer to the sensible center of the spectrum, closer in other words to where the nation’s foreign policy, under President Obama, currently functions in a world crowded with economic and military upheavals. Then for an even better understanding of the shifting gears in Romney’s emerging policy, all you had to do was attend the overflow Brookings foreign policy discussion a day later. It was covered by dozens of reporters and foreign correspondents. C-Span was also present, along with sixteen other television cameras representing networks all over the world. There were questions about Macedonian, Bosnia, Kosovo, Turkey, China, Japan—the whole world in effect wanting to know what a Romney-led America would think and do.

“The Obama and Romney Foreign Policy Agendas: A Discussion with the Candidates’ Leading Advisers” was the name of this remarkable event, and the advisers were Rich Williamson, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign and a former “special representative” to the Sudan for President George W. Bush, and Michele Flournoy, a senior adviser to the Obama campaign and, until earlier this year, the Under-Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Both effectively explained and defended their candidate’s positions and policies, often in spirited exchanges.

Throughout Williamson tried gallantly to differentiate Romney’s approach to the world’s problems from Obama’s, but though his rhetoric was sharper, certainly more political, his basic policy prescriptions were cut essentially from the same cloth.

• On Afghanistan, for example, after months of criticizing Obama for setting deadlines in the war, he now accepted the president’s 2014 deadline for withdrawing American forces, a decision confirmed unanimously by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in May, 2012.

• On the Iran nuclear program, Williamson criticized Obama for failing so far to stop it, but he offered no real evidence that a Romney administration would do any better. Flournoy defended the Obama policy of gradually increasing the pressure on Iran through an unprecedented program of UN-approved sanctions.

• On Syria, Williamson was also critical of the Obama administration’s obvious reluctance to get involved in the civil war there, but again he had no proposals for ousting the Assad regime—at least, none that he offered. Romney would “support” the Syrian rebels, he said, but not with weapons–same as the Obama administration’s position. Flournoy, describing the president’s policy as “pragmatic,” refused to discuss the possibility of American military involvement, or Israeli military involvement.

• On Israel, which Romney will visit this week and which Obama, as President, has not visited, Williamson ripped into Obama for joining a UN chorus of “accusations, threats and insults” against Israel, but on how Romney would advance the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, now in deadlock, Williamson had no fresh ideas. Flournoy argued that policy should not be rooted in travel itineraries—whether he goes to Jerusalem or not. She stressed that Obama’s support of Israel has been, as the president has repeatedly stressed, “ironclad.”

• On Pakistan, a nuclear country on the edge of political disintegration, Flournoy explained the danger and complexity of the problem, and Williamson seemed to agree with her. The big problem has been control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Time and again, Williamson, in gesture and comment, tried to convey differences with Obama—in words, yes, but in substance, no. He even ended up congratulating Obama’s policy towards India and China, basically because the President, he said, has chosen to follow Bush II’s opening to India and emphasis on human rights in China.

Willliamson described Romney as an internationalist with none of the old-fashioned Republican tendencies towards isolationism, again positioning him in the middle of the policy spectrum. Indeed, he said, Romney is intent on re-establishing America’s central role in the world: the 21st century, like the 20th, would be America’s to lead. He told the VFW that America, under Obama, has been a nation in decline. Obama, in his speech to the VFW, responded, in effect, that such criticism was nonsense. “The United States has been, and will remain,” he said, “the one indispensable nation in world affairs.”

Romney this week visits Great Britain, Israel and Poland, and clearly the 2012 presidential campaign has entered a new phase. Welcome at long last to the beginning of a discussion and debate about the nation’s foreign policy.