Foreign policy isn’t expected to pave the path to the White House in 2012 though, of course, that could all change in a literal flash.
Still, a president seeking re-election against a backdrop of a lackluster economy would be remiss if he didn’t stress his unique role as the nation’s top policymaker in the international relations arena and the military’s commander-in-chief.
And in making clear the contrasts between himself and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, President Obama clearly intends to exploit his foreign policy and national security credentials for all they’re worth.
Obama does have the obvious advantage over Romney of actually running the nation’s international relations and military machinery and not being limited to just talking about them like Romney.
Not unexpectedly, Romney’s discussion of Obama’s record has mostly been criticism, with the former Massachusetts governor comprehensively castigating Obama for pretty much his entire foreign policy, for allegedly being too tough on Israel, too soft on Iran and too trusting of Russia, for example.
The Obama team has fought back by one, pointing out its successes, like the killing of Osama bin Laden; two, referring to bipartisan agreement among many foreign-policy experts that Obama has following a sensible course in international relations, and three, highlighting Romney’s inconsistencies and reversals on foreign policy and national security questions.
That last technique was on particular display Thursday during a campaign speech by Vice President Biden at New York University. In what was partly a robust defense of Obama’s foreign policy record and partly a cutting critique of Romney’s foreign-policy “rhetoric”, the vice president used some of Romney’s statements, some of which have shifted, to remind voters of the all-but-certain Republican nominee’s reputation for allegedly changing positions on issues for political expedience.
It was Biden’s way of contrasting what he called Obama’s decisive action to foreign policy with what Biden said was Romney’s more muddied positions. Biden said:
“We know that when the governor does venture a position, it’s a safe bet that he previously took or is about to take an exactly opposite position. And an equally safe bet that he’s going to end up landing in the wrong place and out of the mainstream of the thinking of Republican and Democratic foreign-policy experts…
“Let’s start with Iraq. When President Obama ran four years ago, he promised to end the war responsibly. He gave me the honor and responsibility of coordinating that policy. He kept his commitment. He brought home … all 150,000 of our troops. He developed a strong relationship with a sovereign Iraq.
“Last December, Gov. Romney initially applauded the withdrawal which he went on to say, partially, which is true, the credit should go to President Bush. But he applauded the decision. Three months later, he reversed him”self) saying ‘It was “an enormous error,” end of quote, I can back this up, and saying he would have left tens of thousands of U.S. troops behind in Iraq.”
Biden also accused Romney of wanting to give the nation a throwback foreign policy that not just revives the controversial approach of President George W. Bush witnessed before and after the U.S. invasion of Iraq but that returns the nation to a Cold War outlook.
Biden ticked off a number of areas where the U.S. and Russia have reached understandings, including Russia’s letting the U.S. military use its airspace to supply American troops in Afghanistan.
But Romney seemed unaware of all of these positive changes in U.S.-Russia relations, was Biden’s message. As proof, he cited Romney’s widely reported recent statement that Russia was the U.S. “number one geopolitical rival.”
That was proof, Biden said, of a dated Cold War mindset on the part of Romney and his advisers. Inadvertently underscoring Biden’s point during a Thursday teleconference with reporters, two Romney advisers referred to “the Soviets” and “Czechoslovakia” both of which haven’t existed since the early 1990s.
The Obama campaign previewed Biden’s speech with a video meant to raise questions about the credibility of Romney’s attacks on Obama’s record on foreign policy and national security. The video, part of a series contrasting the president and his GOP challenger, was titled: “Romney Versus Reality: Global Edition.”
The Romney campaign didn’t respond to a request for reaction to Biden’s speech.
Romney’s criticisms of Obama and the strong pushback by the administration and campaign highlighted the risks the presumptive GOP nominee runs in taking on the president on foreign policy.
While the economy represents a real vulnerability for the president and Romney’s business achievements make many voters view him as a reasonable alternative to Romney, the Republican is clearly on softer ground on foreign-policy, having little experience in that area. On foreign policy and national security, Romney is fighting on ground of Obama’s choosing.
And that’s not Romney’s only problem. As Jon Alterman, a foreign policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, Romney is soon to become the titular leader of a party that doesn’t currently have a coherent foreign-policy vision.
“The Republican Party hasn’t figured out what a Republican foreign policy looks like after the Bush administration. So there are essentially liberal interventionists, there are, I don’t want to use the word neo-isolationists, but people who feel like we’ve been too far extended overseas. There are people who think we should be all about rights and people who think we should be all about developing ties for American business.
“I think that part of the challenge that Gov. Romney is going to have is going to be articulating a new vision for the Republican Party which I think left the Bush years more divided on foreign policy than has been the case in the Republican Party for a very long time.
Meanwhile, Alterman observed, there isn’t much discernible daylight between how the Obama administration has conducted foreign policy and Republican administrations going back decades. He said:
“The other piece of this is, I think, the Obama administration has had a relatively centrist foreign policy. It has been relatively conservative. It has sought to disentangle ourselves from two ongoing conflicts. If you were starting from a blank slate, it’s not clear that a Republican foreign policy wouldn’t look roughly like what the Obama foreign policy has looked like.
“The proof of this is if you look at the foreign policy of George H.W. Bush, it is more or less on the same wavelength as where the Obama foreign policy has been.
“So I think the challenge for the Republican Party has been do we go to the base and try to resurrect a kind of neo, neo conservative, this-is-what-leadership-is-about paradigm? Do we try to go to a traditional, modest-conservative, limited-objectives-overseas route and, if you do that, what are the key issues of difference with what the Obama administration has been doing?
“All of this comes vividly clear on Syria. Because I can’t figure out what the partisan lines on Syria are at all. Because you don’t have those partisan lines. In some ways the Obama foreign policy has tried to respond rather than too aggressively shape. But that’s not totally incompatible with the ways Republicans have thought about foreign policy and the challenges facing the U.S. in the entire post-war period.”