As he locks down the Republican nomination for US president, Republican US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney is framing what looks to be a decidedly hawkish foreign policy.
However, should the former Massachusetts governor defeat Democratic US President Barack Obama in November, it remains far from clear how he would actually tackle what his own Web site describes as a “bewildering array of threats and opportunities.”
More clear is the strategy that Romney plans to use to try to diminish Obama’s record on foreign policy.
Obama, whose own foreign policy inexperience was widely viewed as a weakness four years ago, now generally gets high marks in polls on the topic — particularly since the killing of then-al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden last year.
The president’s campaign cites the dismantling of al-Qaeda’s leadership and the historic sanctions against Iran as evidence of his effectiveness.
The Romney campaign, however, believes it can paint an alternate picture of Obama as naive, weak and perhaps secretly convinced that the world’s most pre-eminent superpower has entered an era of unstoppable and terminal decline.
Beyond his success at devastating al-Qaeda with drone strikes and special forces raids — a trend begun under Republican former US president George W. Bush, but accelerated by the current administration — Romney’s team says that Obama’s foreign policy achievements are limited.
By being content to “lead from behind” on issues such as the conflict in Libya, they say Obama has sacrificed the US’ dominant global position. The attempted “reset” of relations with Russia has largely been a failure, they say, while planned military cuts could leave potential adversaries such as China and Iran with too great an ability to challenge Washington.
“Governor Romney believes in American exceptionalism, that we are great not just because of our military and economic power, but also because of our values,” says Richard Williamson, a leading Republican foreign policy specialist and adviser to the Romney campaign who served in various roles under former US president Ronald Reagan and both Bush administrations.
“The current president does not ... He believes in engagement — which has often not worked — while the governor believes we should say what we believe and work from a position of strength.”
That is the kind of rhetoric that Obama’s team dismisses as largely meaningless.
However, in real terms, Williamson said, a Romney presidency would offer a “more aggressive” approach toward China, Russia and the Middle East. Romney says he would swiftly brand Beijing a currency manipulator, refuse to concede to Moscow on nuclear issues and put more emphasis on defending Israel.
On the surface, his statements on the key foreign policy topic of the moment — what action might be needed to stop Iran’s nuclear program — remain relatively similar to those of Obama.
Romney says he would ratchet up the financial pressure on Tehran through sanctions, while leaving the option of military action on the table.
The Republican’s campaign, however, clearly wants to give the impression that he might prove more willing than Obama to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program.
As Obama walks a thin line trying to avoid a military confrontation in the months before the Nov. 6 election while also restraining Israel, the Republican challenger has much more freedom to talk tough.