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With world their stage, one last presidential clash

Romney, Obama share some views on foreign policy, but Monday’s debate likely to highlight harsh divides

The stage is set for a fierce collision when President Obama and Mitt Romney meet Monday night in Florida for a foreign policy debate.AP File photos

Mitt Romney’s criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy has been unrelenting. The Republican presidential nominee has said Obama has let US dominance fall by the wayside, botched military withdrawals, let Iran move closer to nuclear capability, coddled China, and mishandled the Arab revolutions.

Obama, in turn, has suggested that Romney is a foreign policy novice who is posturing on Iran. Romney, he says, risks dragging a war-weary nation into another conflict, will sacrifice domestic programs to spend an extra and unneeded $2 trillion on defense, and will let a band of neoconservatives from the George W. Bush administration regain power.

Thus the stage is set for a fierce collision when the two meet Monday night in Florida for a foreign policy debate — the last debate to be held before Election Day — in which the positions of the candidates on war and world affairs will be on center stage in a way that hasn’t yet occurred in this campaign.

While the campaign has recently been consumed over questions about whether Obama misstated the reasons for the attack on a US consulate in Libya, the debate is likely to focus on a far larger question dividing the candidates when it comes to foreign policy: How far should the United States go in exerting its military might and geopolitical influence around the world, and at what cost?


Analysts said the candidates have surprisingly similar policies on some key foreign issues, such as the 2014 withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. But Obama and Romney have projected a starkly different view of how American power should be used in the future.

“Even if it turns out they agree point for point on America’s role in the world, there can be tremendous disagreement on how you implement that,” said Nora Bensahel, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan national security think tank in Washington.


It is telling, analysts said, that the shadow of George W. Bush administration hangs over the foreign policy of both candidates. Obama has spent much of his term extricating the United States from wars that began under his predecessor, while Romney’s advisers include some of Bush’s most hawkish former aides, raising questions about whether the nominee is planning for a renaissance of neoconservative policy.

In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, foreign policy has been perceived as one of Obama’s greatest strengths. But Romney’s recent attacks on the president have helped close that gap. A poll conducted earlier this month by the Pew Research Center found that Obama is viewed as a better foreign policy leader than Romney by a four-point margin, compared with a 15-point advantage one month earlier.

Obama generally prefers a coalition approach and has strived to keep US ground troops out of new conflicts.

“President Obama came in and took a very different approach to US leadership than the Bush administration, which Romney seems to want to go back to,” Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former undersecretary of defense for policy, said in an interview. “The first term of Bush was threatening the use of military instruments and often being out front and alone.

“This president has said US leadership is about leveraging our alliance and partnerships to bring the international community together for more effective action. Yes, obviously we will take unilateral action when vital interests require it, i.e., [killing] bin Laden. But the preferred and more effective strategy is to lead others to the table. That is a fundamentally different approach in philosophy and style.”


Romney often has been bellicose, saying that he would be more willing to use American power to shape the world. But some of his charges have raised questions about how he would follow up if he becomes president. Romney, who has accused Obama of being too soft on China, has said he would declare the country a currency manipulator, a move that some fear could set off a new trade war, while Obama has said Romney is “the last person who is going get tough with China.”

One of Romney’s most controversial foreign policy statements came when he said that Russia is the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States, evoking memories of the Cold War.

“I’d like to know where the devil he gets that idea. It’s preposterous,” said Leslie Gelb, former president of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations. Gelb, like a number of analysts, said that Romney has both “realists” and “neoconservatives” among his advisers, and he said the latter appear to have pushed him to excoriate Russia.

The Obama administration counts its “reset” of relations with Moscow as a major accomplishment that smoothed the way for Russian cooperation against Iran, including the cancellation of a large sale of defense equipment to Tehran. But Romney has called for a tougher stance, and says he would not normalize trade relations with Moscow until Congress passes a law targeting human rights abusers in Russia.


Alex Wong, the Romney campaign’s foreign policy director, defended the characterization of Russia as the nation’s primary foe, accusing Moscow of watering down sanctions against Iran. “This relationship has actually deteriorated over the last four years, and on every front Russia has been working to frustrate American interests,” he said.

One of the major questions about Romney is what brand of adviser would have the most influence if he becomes president. For example, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, who comes from the more moderate realist camp, is running Romney’s national security transition team, while Dan Senor, widely considered to come from the more hawkish neoconservative camp, is a top adviser to Romney and running mate Paul Ryan.

Wong, asked if Romney considers himself a neoconservative, “Governor Romney’s foreign policy doctrine is he will do whatever it takes to make America stronger.”

Analysts said that, notwithstanding some harsh rhetoric, the two candidates have more in common than may be widely realized on issues regarding Iran, Israel, Afghanistan, and Libya.

In a recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, for example, Romney said Obama “has failed to lead in Syria.” But much of Romney’s policy mirrors that of the president. Both men have opposed using US air power to create no-fly zones or safe havens, rejecting a proposal from Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican. Romney has said that he wants to help get arms to rebels, with the major caveat they must “share our values,” a vague condition that may be hard for a president to implement.


A key Romney adviser and leading neoconservative, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton, has said rebels who are “truly secular” should receive arms. (Bolton did not respond to a request for comment.) The Obama administration has said it won’t send weapons directly to the rebels, citing concern that they might get into the hands of terrorists, but has encouraged the shipment of some lighter arms via other countries.

On Afghanistan, the policy differences are nuanced. Romney backs the administration’s plan for withdrawing troops by 2014, but has also attacked Obama for publicizing the date in advance, arguing it would embolden terrorists who could simply wait out the next two years. The administration counters that setting a firm date is necessary to convince the Afghan government that it must step up to take responsibility for its security.

The White House says that international sanctions against Iran are working but that all options including military force are on the table to stop the country from getting a nuclear weapon. But despite pressure from Israel, the administration has declined to specify under exactly what conditions it might take military action.

Romney has given shifting explanations for when he would use force against Iran. He said during a visit to Israel this summer that he would not allow Iran to gain a “nuclear weapons capability.” In an interview with ABC News this fall, though, Romney appeared to raise his threshold from simply gaining a capability. “My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon,” he said, a stance that appeared to mirror the president’s policy.

The clearest difference between the two candidates, though, may be on defense spending. Obama has proposed paring back planned expenditures by $487 billion over the next 10 years, while Romney has promised to increase spending on the basic military budget until it reaches 4 percent of GDP, up from a projected 3.5 percent in the 2013 budget. That would translate into about an additional $2 trillion over the next 10 years. He has not accounted for how all the extra money would be spent, and critics have questioned the idea of basing military spending on a percentage of GDP.

“There’s no strategy behind it,” Flournoy, of the Obama campaign, said at a Thursday debate in Washington with a Romney foreign policy adviser. “How in the world are you going to pay for it, especially if you are not willing to increase taxes for the wealthiest Americans?”

Romney adviser Dov S. Zakheim, an undersecretary of defense in the George W. Bush administration, responded at the debate that defense spending is not a major part of the debt problem. “The problem is entitlements,” he said, referring to programs such as Social Security and Medicare. “It is not defense. Defense is practically a rounding error. So if you want to go ahead and trade defense as a hostage for the issues that have to be dealt with, go right ahead. But the only people you will be helping are the Iranians, North Koreans, the Venezuelans, and others like them.”

Obama last week jokingly previewed what doubtless will be one of his key debate talking points on Monday night. “Spoiler alert,” Obama said. “We got bin Laden.”

Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@
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