DECISION 2012 | FOREIGN POLICY
An opening for Romney in foreign policy debatehttp://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/an-opening-for-romney-in-foreign-policy-debate-n175n61-173974451.htmlObama's risk-averse course was a welcome change from Bush, but in key theaters more leadership would be a plus. Romney could deliver it.
Barack Obama wanted to put distance between himself and George W. Bush on foreign policy - and no wonder. Bush started two wars, only one of them justified and neither one paid for. He damaged relations with old allies around the world nearly beyond repair and left his young successor to pick up the pieces.
Obama "reset" relations not only with Russia but across America's portfolio of friends. He ended the Iraq war - just as he promised. He is winding down the war in Afghanistan, although not as soon as we would like. The president has had his share of foreign policy successes.
But in his attempts to be the anti-Bush, Obama too often has been too disengaged. Like some voters, America's allies want to feel the love even when they decline to return it. Ask Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose relationship with the president has gone from cool to disdainful.
Despite Mitt Romney's fumbling of his first big foreign trip (recall he offended both the Brits and the Palestinians), Obama's risk-averse strategy has left his challenger an unexpected opening on foreign policy.
In a major speech on foreign policy at Virginia Military Institute last week, Romney outlined a more muscular approach that sounded like his Pole Star Ronald Reagan. He never used the words "peace through strength," but he could have.
On an array of challenges, there is not that much space between the two men. And old hands in the Foreign Service allow that in many ways policy doesn't change that much between presidents. The challenges are too deep, the bureaucracy too large, the options too few.
But on some areas where there is disagreement, we'd side with Romney:
Terrorism: As Vice President Joe Biden likes to say "General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden is dead." Obama gets credit for approving the mission that decapitated a dangerous terrorist organization. But terrorism remains a threat despite the targeted killing of terror suspects. Obama was right to do this, but the larger problems remain - especially in Pakistan, which has proved to be a shaky ally.
Iran: The president missed an opportunity early in his administration to pressure the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when protesters took to the streets of Tehran. The nascent revolt collapsed. To counter the Iranian nuclear threat, Obama has worked to isolate the country through sanctions, which appear to be biting. He insists that a military intervention remains possible, but we're not sure the Iranians believe it. Obama has resisted calls by Netanyahu for "red lines" that Iran must not cross.
Syria: Obama has called for the overthrow of the Assad government in Syria and put a premium on securing the country's chemical weapons. His administration has supplied equipment but not arms. It should do more.
Gary Grappo, who held senior positions for the State Department throughout the Middle East, says the U.S. and its allies should help support a unified ethnically diverse opposition movement, identify and groom Democrats within the country, set up a parliament in absentia and draft a constitution. In other words, be ready for the day when Assad finally falls. He would make sure the rebels are armed through surrogates and that expatriates have safe zones on the borders. Makes sense to us.
Arab Spring: Obama sought a thaw in U.S.-Arab and Muslim relations. His 2009 Cairo speech was one of his most important. The president's policy of arm's-length encouragement and modest U.S. aid for the nations roiled by the Arab Spring was appropriate. It's their fight. He managed a delicate balance of U.S. interests in both Libya and Egypt. But his administration hasn't explained how the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was left so tragically unprotected. One of the best foreign service officers we had in the region, Christopher Stevens, is dead as a result of that lack of protection.
Israel: Obama has acknowledged his disappointment that the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has broken down. He should be disappointed with himself. It requires strong U.S. leadership - a dragging of the two sides to the table. Obama hasn't provided it. As noted, the relationship with the Israeli government is a problem, though this is as much Bibi Netanyahu's fault as Obama's.
China: Obama has sought a cooperative relationship but also criticized the Chinese for currency manipulation. As the campaign ramped up, the president took a tougher line on trade and expanded the U.S. Marine presence in Australia in a move widely seen as a counterweight to the Chinese. But the options are limited. The U.S. and China are joined at the hip by their trade relationship and China's position as our largest creditor.
Terrorism: Among other things, Romney would focus on cybersecurity and ways to counter radicalization in Muslim groups. He says that al-Qaida remains a strong force throughout the Middle East and that "drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East." What's less clear: his strategy.
Iran: Romney wants tougher sanctions and has endorsed the idea of "red lines" sought by Netanyahu. He seems more open to the idea of a joint American-Israeli strike and has said that it's unacceptable not only for Iran to have a nuclear weapon but even the capability to build one. "I will make sure Iran knows of the very real peril that awaits if it becomes nuclear," he has said.
Our concern: That sounds a lot like the tough talk that got us into Iraq. We're worried Romney won't be able to calibrate the fine line between action and action that goes a step too far.
Syria: Romney has talked tougher than Obama and would be eager to work with allies such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia to arm the rebels so that Assad is toppled. He would intervene militarily to safeguard chemical weapons - the right position and one shared with Obama. And Romney has promised to work with allies to organize and equip members of the opposition "who share our values." Done properly, that's the right call.
Arab Spring: Romney has called it the "Arab winter," claiming that Obama didn't do enough to promote democratic governance. We're not persuaded.
Israel: The governor has been sharply critical of Obama's Israel policy and made a point of visiting Netanyahu during his foreign trip in July. He says his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. He would cut aid to the Palestinians if they continue to seek United Nations recognition or form a government that includes Hamas. His support for a two-state solution has been questioned; it would be a mistake to walk back from that policy.
China: Romney makes a lot of noise about China - even to the point of calling the Chinese "bullies" and "cheaters." But we're not persuaded he has any more room to run than does Obama, and his rhetoric makes businesses that trade with the Chinese nervous. His promise to designate China as a currency manipulator on his first day of his presidency is an empty threat; it simply means the Treasury Department investigates.
Obama's risk-averse foreign policy has produced an uneven record. Despite the characterizations of the campaign, Romney is no George W. Bush. He's a moderate who favors a firmer hand. In key theaters, including Israel and Syria, that firmer hand might bend history more to our liking.