WASHINGTON — Democrats plan to put their convention spotlight on foreign policy this week, praising President Obama’s signature achievements overseas and portraying Mitt Romney’s views as misguided and dangerously confrontational, according to senior campaign officials.
Polls show that Obama is the first Democratic presidential candidate in decades to hold a clear advantage on foreign policy over his GOP opponent — in this case a former Massachusetts governor with little experience in international affairs. How much that will matter in a contest focused on the economy is an open question, but the Democratic Party is bent on capitalizing on its edge.
The first stage of the strategy has already been implemented, with campaign surrogates reminding voters that Obama ended the Iraq War as promised, ordered the bold raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and worked to repair tattered relations with allies.
Part two, targeting Romney, is being rolled out this week. Directed at undecided moderates, it seeks to instill a sense of trepidation among voters still raw from the costs in lives and money of the Iraq War, and what some perceive as misguided GOP responses to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Many of [Romney’s advisers] were deeply involved in the most controversial policies of the Bush administration,” said Michelle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who is now cochairwoman of the Obama campaign’s national security advisory group. “It is fair to question whether we are trying to go back to the policies of the previous administration” — policies she said were pursued by “very hard-core neoconservatives.”
That includes John Bolton, the hawkish former ambassador to the United Nations who has called for military intervention in Iran and Syria; Robert G. Joseph, a key architect of the Iraq War as a member of the National Security Council and the State Department; and Dan Senor, a top adviser who played a role in the much-criticized provisional government after the invasion of Iraq.
Democrats are also aggressively trying to portray Romney as out of touch, pointing to his convention speech Thursday.
“Governor Romney had nothing to say about Afghanistan last week. Didn’t mention it,” Obama said in Iowa on Saturday. “Didn’t offer a plan in terms of how he might end the war or, if he’s not going to end it, he’s got to let people know.”
The foreign policy strategy allows Democrats to focus on a weighty concern beyond the economy. Convention organizers are planning a series of events, including a speech Thursday by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a combat veteran.
“A presidency can be changed overnight with a foreign crisis,’’ Kerry said in an interview. “You can’t be strong at home if you are not strong in the world. This fall [voters] are going to measure that.”
Romney supporters insist the Obama message is misleading. They contend his policies have reduced US influence and respect in the world. And while they give him credit for killing Bin Laden, they assert it was the result of continuing the efforts begun by his predecessor.
“Candidate Obama told us in 2008 that he would bring multilateral leadership to the world, he would talk to our enemies and we would be better off for it,’’ said Richard Grenell, a former Bush adviser at the UN. “But the facts show he has garnered less support at the UN and abandoned multilateral institutions. His stated successes of capturing [Osama bin Laden] and drone attacks in Pakistan are both unilateral actions proving he either failed in his goal or didn’t know what he was talking about in 2008.”
Bolton and Joseph declined requests for comment.
The convention this week provides Democrats a stage for their strategy. Sources say that Vice President Joe Biden, in his speech Thursday, will hail the president for decimating Al Qaeda and killing bin Laden.
‘It is fair to question whether we are trying to go back to the policies of the previous administration.’
Obama advisers say other themes expected to be part of the convention include:
■ Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama ended America’s involvement in the unpopular Iraq War two years ago, fulfilling a campaign promise. The administration has also followed through on Obama’s plan to first intensify the US involvement in Afghanistan, then transition security to Afghan forces over the next two years.
■ A “rebalanced” approach to an unstable world, shifting reliance on the United States as leader in all foreign policy disputes to a collaborative approach, with allies on such matters as sanctions against Iran. The approach also focuses attention on such emerging threats as cyberwarfare.
■ An ability to reach common ground with adversaries that lead to a safer world. The arms control treaty Obama negotiated — and Kerry helped ratify — with Russia to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons will be a key example.
“The public pretty much is with him on most of these issues,’’ said Colin Kahl, a former Pentagon official now advising the Obama campaign. “It is a disconcerting position for the Republicans to be in. They don’t have a natural edge this time around.”
Romney has been critical of Obama but has not provided many details on how he would handle such issues as Afghanistan. Instead he has made some statements considered by both Democratic and some Republican foreign policy hands as unnecessarily threatening.
William S. Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as secretary of defense for President Clinton, singled out two recent Romney statements — that Russia is America’s greatest foe, and that China is manipulating its currency — as unnecessarily confrontational given the United States has to work closely with both on a host of crises, including Iran’s nuclear program and the emerging civil war in Syria.
“You can toughen it up but do in a way that doesn’t put you in a box,” he advised.
Others point out that Romney has expressed stridently hawkish views on issues such as Iran — suggesting that he might back air strikes on nuclear facilities there — and on the Middle East, contending in his acceptance speech that Obama has “thrown Israel under the bus.” That assertion was rebutted publicly by Israel’s prime minister and defense minister.
Such aggressive stances have trained greater attention on Romney’s advisers.
“Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan are foreign policy guys. As a result they are more reliant on who is advising them” said Kahl. “It is kind of the neoconservative all-star team.”
“They supported some of the worst decisions in American history,’’ Kerry said. “They left our relationships in tatters. On Iran, there was no focus, no sanctions. They took their eye off the ball in Afghanistan. President Bush said ‘I don’t worry about where Osama bin Laden is.’ ”
Some political observers, however, question the effectiveness of the Democrats’ strategy.
“Obama is advantaged here and he should talk about that — but he should also understand that this advantage is unlikely to sway very many voters who are undecided at this point because the issues are simply not that salient to voters,” said Lynn Vavreck, coauthor of the forthcoming book “The Gamble: Choice and Chance in the 2012 Presidential Election’’ and a professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “He’d be better off talking about the growth in the economy — even though it is slow.”
Others say questions about a candidate’s advisers are valid.
“Who will he turn to?” Cohen asked. “Will it be John Bolton or Richard Hass?” the former adviser to both presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush who represents the pragmatic wing of the GOP foreign policy establishment.
“It is fair to ask, ‘who is your team?’ ”Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org