Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney laid out his foreign policy vision in Lexington, Virginia on Monday. Although he criticized incumbent president Barack Obama for failing to lead, the specifics of his plan are not markedly different from the Democrat’s.
Romney, whose main campaign promise is to improve the economy, currently showing lackluster growth and high joblessness, argued that the president’s foreign policy is one of words “not backed up by deeds” and seems rudderless “when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut, when we have no trade agenda to speak of and the perception of our strategy is not one of partnership but of passivity.”
Indeed, the president delivered a number of high-profile addresses in the first year of his administration to signal a departure from the previous, Republican government’s policies. He promised to work toward a “world without nuclear weapons” in Prague in April 2009 and reached out to the Islamic world in Cairo in June of that year, announcing “a new beginning” in relations between Muslims and the United States.
Besides a new weapons reduction treaty with Russia, little progress has been made toward eradicating nuclear weapons altogether and the president is no more popular in most Muslim countries than his predecessor was. He has continued anti-terrorist policies, indeed, increased the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to assassinate suspected Islamic terrorists, as well as President George W. Bush’s isolation of Iran, which Western nations believe is developing a nuclear weapons capacity.
Romney can also rightly criticize defense spending cuts for the president’s inability to forge a comprehensive budget deal with Republicans in Congress produced them, although Democrats blame the opposition party’s intransigence for their failure to reach an agreement. However, the president has since apparently done nothing to stave off the looming cuts, the first of which will be enacted next year, even if his own defense secretary has described them as “crazy”.
The president’s trade agenda has consisted of little more than ratifying agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that were negotiated during the Bush Administration. Despite the urging of Canada, Colombia, Japan and Mexico, four key American commercial and strategic partners, the Obama Administration has yet to announce plans for joining the Trans Pacific Partnership which is fast emerging as the most potent vehicle for promoting freer trade across the Americas and Asia.
Romney, in Lexington, promised to “work with nations around the world that are committed to the principles of free enterprise, expanding existing relationships and establishing new ones” although he stopped short of explicitly endorsing America’s entry to the TPP.
Global perception of American leadership can arguably be said to have waned in the last four years.
Despite the administration’s “reset” in relations with Russia, the two former Cold War rivals can hardly be said to be on a better footing today. Just last week, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov warned that the “reset” cannot last forever. “Otherwise it is not a reset,” he said, “but a malfunction.”
Relations with Saudi Arabia, America’s most important ally in the Arab world, have suffered under what Romney described as the administration’s “passivity.” The Saudis were particularly appalled by the president’s handling of last year’s popular uprising in Egypt when, after weeks of protests, he urged Hosni Mubarak, another longtime American ally in the region, to step down. The Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that is seen by the Saudis as a threat to their monarchy, has since taken power in a country that used to be a partner of theirs in preventing Iran from asserting itself beyond the Persian Gulf.
Israel is similarly frustrated. Obama soured relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu almost immediately after he came to office when he demanded a freeze in settlement construction in Palestinian territories. Netanyahu largely complied but the demand did more to embolden the Palestinians who abandoned bilateral negotiations with Israel and took to the United Nations to be recognized as a state — an effort that was dutifully thwarted by the United States.
In fairness, it is doubtful whether a President Romney would have performed better on these fronts. He has described Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe,” which doesn’t suggest a keen understanding of Russian foreign policy objectives. He does not argue that Mubarak should have remained in power when Egyptians took to the streets to demand his resignation. And both candidates support a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. As Romney said Monday, “I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”
Romney warned in November that if the United States elected him as president, Iran “will not have a nuclear weapon” whereas, “If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.” On Monday, he promised to “put the leaders of Iran on notice” and tighten economic sanctions on their country. But that isn’t any different from what Obama had done.
Indeed, the Republican virtually admitted that his Iran policy would be the same as the president’s in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in July when he said, “President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning. It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”
On one issue, Romney deviated slightly from the president’s policy. He said that he would “identify and organize those members of the opposition” in Syria “who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.” Although American allies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have sent weapons to the rebels, the United States have hesitated, fearing that they might fall into the hands of extremists. Romney apparently considers bringing down Bashar al-Assad, who is Iran’s only Arab ally, the priority.
Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran, rather than sitting on the sidelines.
The United States are not “sitting on the sidelines” though but coordinating with allies in the region to provide communications and intelligence in support of Syria’s uprising.
Romney is right to point out that “if America does not lead, others will.” Boosting military spending and deepening trade relations should sustain and enhance American leadership in the world. But for the United States to truly “shape events in ways that secure our interests, further our values, prevent conflict and make the world better,” as Romney put it, he will have to more carefully examine the Obama Administration’s policies, keep the ones that are a reflection of American interests and replace those that aren’t.