The Republican primaries are effectively over, and gone with them is the sharp-edged rhetoric and departures from past U.S. policy on the Middle East.
Gone is Rick Santorum’s pledge to strike Iran and his suggestion that West Bank Palestinians should be referred to as Israelis. Gone is Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the United States is engaged in a “long struggle with radical Islamists” and reference to the Palestinians as an “invented” people.
Instead we are left with Mitt Romney, the candidate who has tended to be relatively cautious in his foreign policy pronouncements, has emphasized the importance of America’s international alliances and drawn his foreign policy advisers from past Republican administrations Dan Senor, a Romney foreign policy adviser who was an adviser to the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq War, said Romney stood by principles that dated back to the Truman presidency.
“America will stand by its allies, it will help dissidents fighting for freedom around the world, it will maintain a large enough defense budget to help the U.S. defend its own national security interests, defend its homeland, and advance these principles shared by America and its allies around the world,” he said, describing Romney’s foreign policy.
Senor said that Obama has embraced these principles to any degree – particularly when it comes to standing by allies – only after failing in his efforts to appease adversaries. As an example, he cited the administration’s emphasis in the first years of Obama’s term on Israel freezing settlements, as well as the president’s outreach to Iran in that period, and his refusal to back pro-democracy activists in that country. “It was this effort to stand equidistant between traditional American allies and American adversaries,” he said.
Romney, he said, would have made clear to the Palestinians that preconditions were off the table and acted sooner to isolate Iran through sanctions and other measures, including seeking incitement to genocide charges against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“These are clear paths where the administration has chosen to go, and where Governor Romney would have gone another way,” he said.
Romney supporters say his hands-on, problem-solving approach would clear away the hesitancy and lack of resolve that they say has marked the Obama presidency.
Noam Neusner, a George W. Bush administration policy adviser who helped shape Romney’s foreign policy during his 2007-08 run for the GOP nomination, said Romney was more assertive than Obama and less inclined to rely on rhetoric as a diplomatic tool.
“When everyone was talking about sanctions” five years ago, Neusner said, “he was looking at what kind of sanctions would work. He was looking beyond the rhetoric and seeing what specific ideas would work. In my view he comes to the table thinking about practical matters to have the impact we want to have. He won’t rely on speech and rhetoric as his primary or only weapon.”
The candidates have had their policy differences. Romney had called for comprehensive sanctions targeting Iran’s economy months before Obama said he was ready to embrace them late last year. And Romney blasted Obama’s call a year ago for Israel and the Palestinians to use the 1967 lines as the basis for their negotiations, saying that the president had “thrown Israel under the bus.”
But on their overall goals there is common ground. Both Romney and Obama are publicly committed to preventing Iran from going nuclear, using pressure and diplomacy while emphasizing that a military strike as a last resort is definitely an option. Both favor a return to Israeli-Palestinian talks without preconditions, and adamantly oppose Palestinian efforts to obtain statehood recognition without the talks.
That has left the opposing sides to define their foreign policy differences along lines of personality and governing style. Romney’s backers describe a can-do, successful businessman who revels in solving problems. Obama’s team depicts a leader who has restored the American credibility they say was eroded by George W. Bush’s adventurism.
Romney has portrayed Obama as a sellout and as weakly deferring to lesser powers. Most recently, referring to a failed North Korean rocket launch, Romney’s campaign accused Obama of trying to “appease” that country through food aid and of “undermining” U.S. security.
Some, however, think that Romney’s criticism is more about campaign rhetoric than genuine differences in policy approaches.
“What drives Romney’s rhetoric right now is the basic reality that the president is not vulnerable on foreign policy, the American public is not interested, so he has not found a sure footing, so he tries to draw contrived or hyperbolic differences,” said Aaron David Miller, a negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations who also has been critical of President Obama’s approach to the Middle East.
Miller, now a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said he didn’t expect to see much of a lurch in policy from Romney.