Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy Opportunity

Romney and President Barack Obama have different perspectives on foreign policy and national security.

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Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter at @robert_nolan.

In a presidential race that's supposed to be all about the U.S. economy, foreign policy issues sure seem to be creeping into the campaign as of late, near daily. Worldwide anti-American protests, attacks on embassies across the Middle East and North Africa and the assassination of the U.S. ambassador in Libya make it hard for Americans—and campaign planners—to ignore global affairs, even in a moment of intense economic anxiety. Yesterday's news that the conflict in Syria has spilled over into Turkey, a strong U.S. ally and NATO member, will demand a response from both campaigns.

Add to world events a week of political theatrics from world leaders at the United Nations and dueling speeches from President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in New York, and suddenly foreign policy was back on the agenda. Event last night's debate about domestic issues and the economy touched on foreign policy, though not to the extent that many expected. 

Though few Americans are likely to vote on foreign policy alone, a recent survey by the  Foreign Policy Initiative finds nearly 60 percent of those polled said recent events in the Middle East have made national security a factor in choosing who they will vote for come November. So where do the two candidates stand on issues impacting the Middle East and national security writ large?  

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

Freedom Agenda 2.0

Mitt Romney laid out what he sees as the challenges facing the United States in that region in his  speech to the Clinton Global Initiative. It was an important and overlooked speech by Romney in which he articulated, for the first time, a foreign policy of his own:

Many Americans are troubled by the developments in the Middle East. Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. And Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability. We feel we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events.

In response, he called for stronger U.S. leadership in the region and an assertion of American values alongside a review of the way aid is distributed, a greater role for the private sector in the region and more trade agreements, packaged in what he called "Prosperity Pacts."

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Can Mitt Romney Best Barack Obama on Foreign Policy?]

Romney followed up with a left hook against Obama in a  Wall Street Journal op-ed, noting that in "failing to maintain the elements of our influence and by stepping away from our allies," the president "has heightened the prospect of conflict and instability." He also blamed future cuts to U.S. defense spending on "budgetary games played by the White House." He reiterated this last point at the first presidential debate at the University of Denver, a clear indicator of the narrative that will be on display at the foreign policy debate scheduled for October and in a foreign policy speech expected from Romney on Monday.

Romney's remarks strike at the heart of Republican criticism of Obama's national security policies: That he's unwilling without political cover to take on dictators like Syria's Bashir Al-Assad and he's  tolerant of Islamists like Egypt's democratically elected Mohamed Morsi; that he's cold with the Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and soft on Iran; that he's unable to manage the backlash from the Arab Spring and timid in his promotion of democratic, American values in the region; that he's downgraded or even forsaken the use of hard power.

Romney's advisers on global affairs are mostly holdovers from the administration of George W. Bush. While the 42nd president's name is not to be spoken by GOP leaders, Romney's emerging foreign policy is a new version of the so-called "freedom agenda" championed by the Bush administration—updated for an era of economic uncertainty. Indeed, a number of former Bush administration officials have begun to come out swinging on behalf of Romney's emerging foreign policy, including former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who spoke out against the Obama administration's response to the Libya attacks on Sunday

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

"My other Prius is a Drone"

For Romney, who until about a week ago was faulted for not having a foreign policy platform at all, it's a dangerous line to take. The president's policies, are largely supported by the American public, accepted by most of the foreign policy community as prudent, and have by most accounts improved America's standing in the world. According to a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Americans see terrorism as a declining threat, give little credit to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for making them safer and support a U.S. defense posture pivot towards Asia. Most Americans saw the intervention in Libya as a success, and the president still gets high marks for the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Still, President Obama took the opportunity of his  address at the United Nations last week to retaliate to the attack on his foreign policy. As I stated on a HuffPost Live discussion with the Reverend Jesse Jackson and others, the president's speech was aimed at three audiences: First, the American public and his critics at home; secondly to the key players in the broader Middle East; and thirdly to the American allies around the world.  

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

In his message to Americans, the president asserted that American values would continue to drive U.S. foreign policy above all else. Freedom of speech, rule of law and the right to choose one's own leadership in a democracy. He defended his support for the transitions to democratic rule in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and vowed to bring justice to the killers of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, as well as those who sought to harm American diplomats or embassy staff.  

In his message to the Arab world, the president condemned the video insulting the Prophet Mohammed that triggered worldwide anti-American protests as "crude and disgusting" and noting that the U.S. "will not seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad." Perhaps more importantly, he called leaders of the region to task for cracking down on the freedoms of their own populations, repeated that the U.S. policy of diplomacy towards Iran's nuclear program was not "unlimited" and that Syria's future "must not belong to a dictator who massacres his own people." He added that those who seek resolution of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians "must not turn their backs on peace,"—a sly reference to Mitt Romney's secretly taped remarks that Palestinians would never embrace peace with Israel.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Has Obama Properly Handled the Arab Spring?]

For America's allies, the president offered shout outs to Israel, as well as India, South Korea, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, and Turkey for their growing regional influence and economic growth.  

But the president is not invulnerable on foreign policy. As Maureen Dowd points out in a scathing column this week for the New York Times, the Obama administration has fumbled its response to the Benghazi attacks on the U.S. embassy, and the narrative surrounding the killing of Bin Laden has been contested in a new book by a Navy Seal who took part in the raid. Romney's strong performance at the first presidential debate on the economy indicated that if he can link his critique of Obama's handling of foreign policy to domestic fears—linking economic and national security issues—foreign policy just might be a more level playing ground than most observers have anticipated. For more, check out the FPA's Foreign Policy Election Guide