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Romney Struggles To Find Foreign Policy Footing

Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally Thursday in Fairfax, Va.
Nicholas Kamm
AFP/Getty Images
Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally Thursday in Fairfax, Va.

Mitt Romney has sought to distinguish his views on foreign policy and the world from positions held by President Obama. So far, it hasn't gained him much traction.

The Republican presidential nominee has insisted that Obama has not done enough to promote America's values and interests, instead "apologizing" and appeasing the nation's enemies.

Romney has described Russia, a country with which Obama has sought to "reset" relations, as the nation's greatest geopolitical foe. He declared the president "simply naive" and "out of touch" after Obama said in July that Venezuela posed no serious threat to the U.S.

This week, Romney criticized Obama for his Middle East policy in general and the administration's response to violence outside U.S. embassies in particular.

"This is the centerpiece of his critique, that President Obama has been too accommodating of adversaries and too quick to be dismissive of our allies, and Romney wants to reverse that balance," says Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush.

"The events in Cairo, the early tweets from Cairo, seem to be a kind of smoking-gun illustration of his critique of Obama," Feaver says. "That's why they came out with their criticism when they did."

But some foreign policy analysts say that for all his complaints about Obama and his talk about restoring U.S. leadership, Romney has struggled to outline exactly what he would do differently than has the incumbent.

Budget pressures may not allow him to boost defense spending as much as he would like, and it's far from certain that the country is in the mood for military interventions in places like Iran, following a decade of war in Afghanistan or Iraq.

"Were Romney to come into office and try to ramp up the defense budget, keep troops in Afghanistan, refuse to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and break off negotiations with Iran and send the bombers, I think there would be enormous pushback not just from the public but within the Republican Party," says Charles Kupchan, who was a National Security Council staffer under President Bill Clinton.

Taking A Tougher Line

Kupchan says that Romney's rhetoric has sounded so tough in part because Obama hasn't left him much political room to occupy on foreign policy issues. The president's aggressive use of drone strikes and the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden have inoculated him against some of the traditional complaints that Democrats are weak on defense.

"Obama has reversed the trend since Vietnam that gave Republicans a leg up on national security," says Kupchan, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "That's gone."

Needless to say, Republicans differ. Among the complaints Romney and other Republicans often lodge against Obama is that he has not done enough to protect American interests, whether it's standing up to China on currency manipulation or responding to the upheaval in the Arab world over the past couple of years.

"Right now, we're a country whose main answer to the call of global leadership is 'No,' " says Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

If Romney were president, she says, "We won't have to rely on the president of France to suggest that something needs to be done in Syria. We won't need to rely on the leadership of Great Britain to suggest we need a harder line on Iran."

The Iran Question

It's not clear exactly where Romney would draw the "red line" in terms of what would make him respond with military force to Iran's nuclear ambitions. But it's apparent he believes the U.S. needs to stand with Israel in making sure Iran does not build a bomb.

"There's an open debate about what President Obama would do when faced with the actual choice of war, versus learning to live with an Iranian weapon," says Feaver, the Duke political scientist.

"I know responsible people who think when faced with that choice, he would go the containment route," Feaver says. "I don't know many who think Romney would."

Romney may be trying to pick up support among Jewish voters "by saying we're not going to throw Israel under the bus," says Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank stocked with Obama allies.

But opinion polls suggest Americans as a whole won't look kindly on military action against Iran, he says. "The American public doesn't want it," Korb says. "The American public wants us to focus on stuff at home."

Not Just The Economy

Romney moved quickly to lay out a foreign policy agenda ahead of the Republican primaries. But until this past week, he had talked less about such issues than a typical GOP candidate might have in the past.

Both Romney and Obama have concerned themselves more with domestic issues. Many commentators have suggested that Romney's best political strategy is to keep his focus on the economy.

Just this week, the Census Bureau reported that household income, when adjusted for inflation, has dropped to its lowest level since 1995, while the percentage of the population living in poverty remained at a record high.

Romney will continue to clarify his positions leading up to the last of the presidential debates on Oct. 22, which will be devoted to foreign policy.

"The campaign has been primarily focused on economics, and this week we saw a bit of a pivot," says Kenneth Weinstein, president of the Hudson Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. "In the next few weeks, Gov. Romney and his surrogates are going to lay the groundwork for criticizing the president's foreign policy."

When he has spoken about world issues, Romney has not always drawn rave reviews. In addition to criticism of his remarks surrounding events that led to the killing of a U.S. ambassador Tuesday, Romney drew heat for some of his comments during his July tour of Great Britain, Israel and Poland.

Still, Romney will want to define clear differences between his own approach to world affairs and Obama's, differences he hopes will pay off at the polls.

"It's hard to say what any president is going to do until they get into office," says Weinstein. "But there are clear outlines of a Romney foreign and defense policy that recognizes American exceptionalism, that will be more muscular in response to events and one that I think has got a more positive vision of what America and its allies can achieve."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alan Greenblatt has been covering politics and government in Washington and around the country for 20 years. He came to NPR as a digital reporter in 2010, writing about a wide range of topics, including elections, housing economics, natural disasters and same-sex marriage.