Is Romney’s foreign policy a radical departure from Obama’s?

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given his most detailed foreign policy speech to date. But how does Romney’s vision for America’s place in the world compare to the policies currently being pursued by the Obama administration – and there any contradictions?


Romney: Called for the arming of anti-Assad rebels with weapons powerful enough to combat “tanks, helicopters and fighter jets”. Romney has consistently criticised Obama for not giving enough support to the rebels.

Obama: Has encouraged Gulf states to arm the rebels, but only with small arms, out of concern that more powerful weapons could fall into hostile hands after the revolution, as happened with the flow of guns out of Libya to other parts of north Africa, including Islamist rebels in Mali. The US has also offered training, intelligence information and military advice to the Syrian rebels.

Contradictions: While Romney criticises Obama for not doing enough to confront those he regards as Islamist extremists in other parts of the Middle East, including the newly elected government of Egypt, he would arm groups in Syria about which he knows little.


A US flag lies amid the rubble at the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya,where Chris Stevens was killed

Romney: Blamed Obama for failures around the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the US ambassador. Romney has accused Obama of failing to recognise that the attack is evidence that al-Qaida is still a force to be reckoned with and should be confronted in Libya. He also blamed the president for poor security at the consulate and for not confronting the Islamist militias responsible for the attack. Romney portrays this as a reflection of Obama’s weakness.

Obama: Sought to strengthen the hand of the shaky new civilian regime in Libya, offering intelligence assistance including the use of drones to track extremist camps. The US has worked with the new government to try to draw the militias into the military and under central control, or to disarm them. But has steered clear of any suggestion of direct military intervention.

Unanswered questions contradictions: Romney has not said how he proposes to combat extremists in Libya. Ground troops or drone attacks are likely to create a severe backlash in a country where, while Nato’s bombing raids were welcome and crucial in support of last year’s revolution, there was strong opposition to foreign forces on the ground.

In fact, Libya is a relative success story despite the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, illustrated by the large numbers of people in Benghazi who turned out to challenge the militiamen, driving them from their base, and to protest in support of the US.

Romney seems to see no contradiction between his call to arm Syrian rebels while condemning Obama for not taking on armed groups in Libya.

Romney is also open to charges of flip-flopping on Libya after initially opposing US air attacks in support of the rebels last year and then backing it.


Romney: Opposes the 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of the last US combat troops. He has accused Obama of effectively telling the Taliban it only has to keep fighting for another two years and then the Americans will be gone.

Romney proposes sticking with Obama’s transition of the main combat role to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014 but keeping a significant US military contingent in the country as back-up. He said that pulling out of Afghanistan too early will only lead to more war, and potentially more terrorist attacks on the US, because it will abandon Afghanistan to the extremists responsible for 9/11.

Obama: Set the deadline for withdrawal from America’s longest war in the face of a now unpopular and, to many people, unwinnable conflict. It is also costly.

Unanswered questions: While Romney has committed to keep the US military in Afghanistan, he has not said how he intends to achieve what American forces have been unable to do in a decade of fighting – defeat the Taliban. One way out is to negotiate, although a Romney administration will find that hard to do given the language he has used to describe the Taliban.


Romney: Previously criticised Obama for not taking a stronger stand in confronting Iran over its nuclear programme. The implication was that he believed the US should be willing to resort to military action sooner rather than later. But Romney has shifted ground toward Obama’s position that increasingly tough sanctions are, for now, the way to press Tehran. Romney, notably, did not embrace the Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s call for a “red line” that, if Iran’s nuclear programme crossed, would automatically trigger an attack.

Obama: Puts the emphasis on diplomacy and sanctions, saying that Tehran is far enough away from developing a nuclear weapon that there is no urgent need for military action. But the president has repeatedly said he will not permit Iran to develop an atomic bomb and that he is prepared to use force to prevent it if necessary.

Unanswered questions: Romney, like Obama, has not specified at what point he would consider military action against Tehran. He also made no mention of diplomacy while supporting Obama’s sanctions policy. But it’s difficult to see how Romney could separate sanctions for the diplomatic track.


Mitt Romney in front of Jerusalem's Old City

Romney: Was secretly recorded at a fundraising describing the Palestinians as not interested in peace and as committed to the destruction of Israel. On a visit to Israel in July, Romney portrayed Jewish culture as superior, saying that it explained why Israelis were prosperous and Palestinians lived in relative poverty. The Republican candidate has also accused Obama of abandoning Israel and jeopardising its security over Iran. He has firmly allied himself with the Israeli government on almost every issue, including saying he would not press it to negotiate with the Palestinians.

Romney attempted to row back in his foreign policy speech, saying that he will “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”. He accused Obama of failing in that goal.

Obama: Early in his presidency he attempted to press Netanyahu to take peace talks seriously by freezing expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Netanyahu pushed back, and the pair’s relationship has soured, made worse by differences over Iran. But Obama significantly increased military assistance to Israel and won praise from Netanyahu and Israeli military chiefs for it.

Contradictions and unanswered questions: Romney appears to have confused the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank with Hamas in Gaza, exposing a woeful ignorance of the issues which will make a difficult situation worse if he inherits the White House. He has effectively surrendered even the pretence at an American-led peace process and Washington as a neutral arbiter. That will only strengthen the view in much of the Arab world that US policy is driven primarily by serving Israel’s interests.


Romney: Has revived cold war era rhetoric by calling Vladimir Putin’s Russia America’s “No 1 geopolitical foe”. He has portrayed Russia as a menace to the new democracies of eastern Europe. Romney has criticised Obama for missile reduction treaties and calling off plans for missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Accuses Obama of showing weakness.

Obama: Attempted a “reset” with Russia but it quickly ran into the mire. He has since accused Moscow of “evil behaviour”. However, Obama concluded that there were more pressing foreign policy problems and that it was important to maintain a working relationship on issues such as Iran and Syria.

Contraditions unanswered questions: Romney has attempted to defend his much-derided “foe” remarks by pointing to its power at the United Nations, including its blocking of stronger measures against Syria and its reluctance to impose sanctions on Iran. But he said that it does not make Russia an enemy and that it is not the primary national security threat to the US. Romney has not said how he will face down Moscow.


Romney: On the one hand, he derides Obama for “pivoting” policy toward Asia when unrest in the Middle East and Putin’s Russia are more immediate threats. On the other, Romney has warned about China’s growing assertiveness “sending chills through the region”. Romney is keen to take on China over what he says is unfair trading through the manipulation of the value of its currency.

Obama: The President’s pivot toward Asia is as much about reassuring US allies – some of them newfound, such as Vietnam – worried about rising Chinese influence. What is billed as the biggest US military build-up in the region since the Vietnam war is more politically than militarily significant, as Obama treads a path of continuing to assert American influence in the region without getting into a confrontation with Beijing.

Unanswered questions: Besides threatening a trade war with China, Romney has not said how he intends to handle China’s rising influence and power. But Beijing may conclude from Romney’s criticism of Obama that it is not a priority for the Republican candidate.

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