Obama vs. Romney on Foreign Policy

New conventional wisdom has emerged about the 2012 presidential race: President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, The New York Times recently explained, aren’t all that far apart in how they see the world or frame U.S. foreign policy strategies.

But this is a wrongheaded view of the choice voters face in November. Obama and Romney’s prescriptions for U.S. foreign policy diverge substantially on several key issues that involve crucial choices for the nation.

To be sure, Romney and Obama are both smart, pragmatic men with seasoned advisers. And they do share many foreign policy views. For example, neither wishes to stay in Afghanistan forever or pull out immediately; neither has a radical proposal on global trade or financial matters, and Obama, chastened by his 2009 and 2010 experiences, is no longer pushing hard for a major new approach to energy and climate.

Both seem willing to use U.S. military power to stop Iran from getting the bomb — though neither is in a hurry to take on that hornet’s nest until absolutely necessary. Indeed, Romney went to great pains while in Israel recently, to support a possible military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities—by Israel. He was adamant that Iran not get the bomb, but less adamant that the United States act to prevent it.

This ambivalence is understandable in light of the complications involved — and resembles Obama’s own complex policies on the subject.

But while the two may agree on perhaps half to two-thirds of the U.S. foreign policy portfolio, it does not make their remaining differences less important. Consider:

DEFICITS AND DEBT: Obama, as part of his deficit reduction and economic renewal strategy, supports nearly $500 billion in defense spending reductions over 10 years, as laid out the Budget Control Act. Romney opposes this. Both oppose “sequestration,” which would cut defense another $500 billion over 10 years, starting in January, if Congress can’t take action before.

Anyone who doesn’t view this as a major foreign policy issue is not thinking broadly enough about what foreign policy really means. No great power can remain great without a strong economy. Obama is basically saying the deficit and debt are such urgent threats to our economic foundations that they must be addressed — even at the price of a somewhat smaller military. Romney is saying that the risks to the armed forces, in the short term, are too great — even if that leaves him with a less persuasive message about how to address the debt over the longer term. This is a vivid distinction — and a valid debate.

CHINA POLICY: Romney wants much of that bigger defense budget to build more ships for the Navy, with an eye on China’s rise. He would increase the Navy’s budget for warship construction BY a half-dozen more major vessels to be built every year — roughly a 66 percent increase over current policy. Obama, meanwhile, has “rebalanced” U.S. foreign policy toward Asia, taking a somewhat hawkish approach toward Beijing in the process. But Obama is less likely than Romney to view the U.S.-China relationship in adversarial terms. Both promise tougher economic measures toward China. But again, Romney proposes the harder line.

RUSSIA RESET: Romney has called Russia our greatest geopolitical foe and lambasted many of President Vladimir Putin’s policies. The Obama administration, while of late angry with Russia over Syria, has still made “Russia reset” a centerpiece of its grand strategy. It has negotiated a new nuclear arms accord, spent lots of time in summits with Russian leaders, worked hard on the Iran and Afghanistan portfolios and (until lately) toned down its public spats with Moscow — especially when President Dmitry Medvedev was in office. This led, among other accomplishments, to a major tightening of sanctions on Iran and North Korea, as well as the development of crucial northern supply routes into Afghanistan, which kept the war effort going even when Pakistan denied the North Atlantic Treaty Organization access for six months.

SYRIA: Romney has called for arming the opposition. Obama favors a more restrained U.S. approach. There are powerful arguments on both sides. Obama risks having Washington stand aside while thousands are slaughtered and extremists gain traction in Syria. Romney risks a limited intervention that, should it fail, would increase pressures to escalate. There are no good choices — but the two candidates have differed considerably on which policy is the least bad.

AMERICA’S ROLE TOWARD THE MUSLIM WORLD: Romney demonstrated during his recent visit to Israel that he is prepared to underscore that U.S. allegiance is, first and foremost, to Israel in the broader Middle East. Obama, with his famous 2009 Cairo speech and other policies, has attempted to reach out to the Muslim world — even as Romney and other Republicans have accused him of being an apologist for America in the process. While this charge won’t stick, it’s fair to note that Obama’s outreach has largely failed in key states like Pakistan. His more balanced efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace have also been unsuccessful. Romney is clearly more willing to tilt toward Israel in his rhetoric — and possibly in his policies.

As a whole, Romney proposes a more traditionally realist foreign policy of emphasizing strong relations with allies, toughening policies toward others and building up the armed forces. Obama still seeks a muscular dimension to America’s role in the world — demonstrated most clearly by his commando raids and drone strikes against Al Qaeda. But the president seeks a more moderate tone and flavor in economic domains as well as policies toward Russia, China and the Muslim world.

These differences are big enough set to merit a great deal of attention and debate. Obama and Romney are far from foreign policy carbon copies of each other.