Mitt Romney’s speech on foreign policy did more to highlight his similarities with President Barack Obama than to draw sharp distinctions over handling global affairs.
In an address yesterday at the Virginia Military Institute, the Republican presidential nominee accused Obama of lacking a strategy for the Middle East, saying the region faces a higher risk of conflict now than it did when the president took office.
“I know the President hopes for a safer, freer, and a more prosperous Middle East allied with the United States. I share this hope. But hope is not a strategy,” Romney told cadets and military officials in Lexington, Virginia, during his fifth visit in four weeks to the politically competitive state.
Still, Romney offered few details of his own approach, and in his attempt to appeal to a broader base of American voters, he echoed several policies already being pursued by Obama, said Charles Kupchan, a U.S. foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The speech struck me as more moderate than previous ones, with less bluster and less neoconservative rhetoric,” Kupchan said in a phone interview, referring to a school of political thinking that emphasizes unilateral American leadership and military power. “The problem for Romney is when you take out the neocon rhetoric, he starts looking a lot like Obama.”
With calls to support rebels fighting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime and impose tougher sanctions on Iran, which is suspected of pursuing nuclear weapons capability, Romney’s remarks weren’t much different from Obama’s policies, Kupchan said.
Romney’s attempt to draw a distinction between himself and Obama is unlikely to resonate with voters because “the president by and large has demonstrated competency on foreign policy,” said Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
“If you say I don’t like the incumbent’s foreign policy, then the question becomes how would you handle it differently?” Miller said in a telephone interview.
A Pew Research Center poll taken from Oct. 4-7 and released yesterday, found that 48 percent of registered voters said Obama would do better on foreign policy, compared with 43 percent for Romney. That’s closer than in the center’s Sept. 12-16 survey, which had Obama leading 53 percent to 38 percent on the issue.
Romney yesterday pulled a few of the punches he previously had thrown at Obama, including some regarding the Sept. 11 assault on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues.
“The blame for the murder of our people in Libya, and the attacks on our embassies in so many other countries, lies solely with those who carried them out,” Romney said.
While he suggested that the administration’s policy of “leading from behind” in Libya and Syria has left “our destiny at the mercy of events,” Romney stopped short of criticizing Obama for supporting the rebellions that toppled authoritarian rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya while leaving the region vulnerable to violence and extremism.
Having previously called Russia the leading geopolitical foe of the U.S., Romney only briefly criticized Obama’s claim that he would have more flexibility in dealing with Russia’s government in a second term.
Some of Romney’s criticisms, including his contention that the president has made “deep and arbitrary cuts” to defense spending and “not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years,” ignored or stretched the facts.
Defense spending today is still more than double what it was when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. A first round of cuts to the Pentagon budget -- $487 billion over 10 years -- was the product of an August 2011 bipartisan agreement between Congress and the Obama administration.
An additional $500 billion in defense cuts will start in January if Congress fails to reach a deficit-reduction deal. The White House and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said the second round in reductions should be avoided.
Romney yesterday renewed his call for building 15 U.S. Navy warships a year, without saying what that would cost or how he would pay for it while cutting the federal deficit. The Navy in fiscal 2013 intends to buy 10 ships.
On trade, the speech ignored Obama’s signing of free-trade pacts with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Each deal was initiated under Bush, though they were stalled in Congress until the Democratic administration pushed them.
In other cases, such as relations with Israel, which Republicans have emphasized to lure some traditional Democratic voters, Romney exaggerated his differences with the president.
He criticized Obama for a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he said has “set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran.”
While administration officials concede that personal ties between Obama and Netanyahu are poor, relations between the two countries are fundamentally unchanged. The U.S. still provides Israel with $3 billion a year in military aid and has helped Israel finance and develop its “Iron Dome” shield against rockets fired from Lebanon and Gaza, which Netanyahu in August said has helped to significantly improve his nation’s defenses.
Romney yesterday backed away from his remarks at a closed-door fundraiser in May that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will remain an “unsolved problem” and that Palestinians are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel.”
During his speech, the former Massachusetts governor said he would “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.”
On still other issues, notably assistance to Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow Assad, Romney left himself maneuvering room. While calling for military aid, he stopped short of saying the U.S. should start providing that support.
Instead, Romney said he would “work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.”
The administration is doing that now, in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and other nations that support the Assad’s opponents.
“He has changed his mind on a number of different issues, in terms of Libya, for instance. At first he was for the intervention; now he’s against it,” Madeleine Albright, secretary of state under Democratic President Bill Clinton, told reporters yesterday on a conference call. “It’s unclear where he is on Syria, for instance.”
After previously saying that he would arm the rebels fighting Assad’s regime, “now he’s just kind of saying that he might help them in some way,” said Albright who’s supporting the Obama campaign.
“There’s an awful of lot of rhetoric and things, but when you get to specifics, you kind of don’t get the sense that he knows what kind of tools to use,” she said.
The vagueness of Romney’s speech reflects divisions in his party and among his advisers. On one side are neoconservatives, such as former United Nations ambassador John Bolton and Liz Cheney, daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. On the other are self-described realists, such as World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who was a deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush.
Five Republicans who have briefed the Romney campaign on foreign policy said neoconservatives have urged unconditional support for Israel, including U.S.-backed military attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities; U.S. military intervention in Syria; an aggressive posture toward China; and increases in Navy and Air Force budgets for new ships, submarines, and aircraft.
Zoellick and other realists have emphasized fiscal restraint and global cooperation, the Republican foreign policy specialists said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. They pointed to Zoellick’s article in the November issue of Foreign Policy magazine in which he argues that “the connection between economics and security will determine America’s future.”
The Republican strategists said Romney’s speech offered few specifics because he has paid little attention to international affairs, rarely met with his advisers and -- with the nomination in hand -- is trying to avoid accusations that his criticism is encouraging Iran, China and Islamic radicals to think they can exploit partisan divisions on international issues.
“For years, Gov. Romney has engaged thoughtful foreign policy thinkers from military careerists to former Secretaries of State,” Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “He weighs their advice and ultimately makes his own decisions on policy.”