Obama, Romney Square Off on Foreign Policy

Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off with dueling foreign policy prescriptions in the July/August issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. If the duel were broadaxes at twenty paces, Obama would slice Romney’s head clean off.

Reading this presidential campaign international affairs stuff is always like chewing sawdust. Neither Obama nor Romney disappoints in the dryness category. But the really astonishing thing is that Romney uses this prestigious platform to present a foreign policy vision for his presidency that is little more than a patchwork of policies that have been failing the nation since the Nixon era.Obama fares better — probably because he isn’t yoked to the sinking Republican foreign policy ship — but he’s still long on the platitudes and short on meaningful steps.

The only thing either one of them is really specific about is upgrading U.S. military forces, a topic on which they agree right down to the details. There’s a bold position for you. Romney wants to recruit 100,000 new troops, Obama, 92,000.

The big deal is Iraq, of course. Romney’s position takes up three pages, but remains all but incomprehensible. He compares the threat from radical Islam to the earlier threats from Nazi Germany and from the Soviets in the Cold War, which would just be silly if he wasn’t running for president. He admits as much himself when, in the paragraph after drawing this parallel, he writes:

There is no comparison between the economic, diplomatic, technological and military resources of the civilized world today and those of the terrorist organizations and states that threaten it.

But Romney offers no prescription for dealing with Iraq, or with international terrorism except more of the same:

Walking away now or dividing Iraq up into parts and walking away later would present grave risks to the United States and the world.

Risks. True enough. The question isn’t whether we face risks. There are risks associated with any policy. The question is whether those risks would greater than the ones we face with the current direction.

Obama is not a lot more specific on what his policy would be in Iraq:

The best chance we have to leave Iraq a better place is to pressure those warring parties to find a lasting political solution. And the only effective way to apply this pressure is to begin a phased withdrawal of U.S. Forces, with a goal of removing all combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008 — a date consistent with the goal set by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. This redeployment could be temporarily suspended if the Iraqi government meets the security, political, and economic benchmarks to which it has committed. But we must recognize that, in the end, only Iraqi leaders can bring real peace and stability to their country.

Obama frankly calls the current conflict in Iraq a “civil war,” a term that only a few months ago was fraught with political baggage, but now passes with scarcely a murmur. But it’s a mystery to me why the politicians on both sides of the aisle continue to insist on the fiction of an Iraqi national identity. The “nation” is legacy of British colonialism, and the warring factions there clearly feel little loyalty to it. Until U.S. policy recognizes the on-the-ground realities — without worrying about whether it represents a U.S. “victory” or a U.S. “defeat”  — it’s pretty clear that no progress will be made. To my mind, the only halfway workable solution that’s been proposed by a candidate is the Biden-Gelb “federal” plan, which no one seems to take very seriously.

On energy security, Romney’s policies could be ripped straight out of Richard Nixon’s briefing book. He favors “energy independence,” by which he means more oil and gas drilling offshore and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge; more nuclear power; more coal; more biodiesel; more solar and wind … more, more, more. He also offers a leaden assurance that:

“At the same time, we may well be able to rein in our greenhouse gas emissions.”


The different approaches of the two candidates is tidily demonstrated in the organization of their discussion of energy and global climate change. For Romney, climate change is a minor subset of energy policy, which “we may well be able to rein in” after we’ve produced all our oil, gas and coal.

In Obama’s piece, energy policy is a subset of climate policy:

“As the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gases, America has the responsibility to lead. While many of our industrial partners are working hard to reduce their emissions, we are increasing ours at a steady clip — by more than ten percent per decade. As president, I intend to enact a cap-and-trade system that will dramatically reduce our carbon emissions. And I will work to finally free America of its dependence on foreign oil — by using energy more efficiently in our cars, factories, and homes, relying more on renewable sources of electricity, and harnessing the potential of biofuels.”

Obama cites a global demand for low-carbon energy creating a market worth $500 billion by 2050. New technologies will be needed to meet this demand. Obama doesn’t specify what these might be, but like all politicians places his faith in the apparently limitless inventiveness of American capitalism:

“Meeting that demand would open new frontiers for American entrepreneurs and workers.”

The optimistic economic view of dealing with climate change — and one which Great Britain has specifically adopted in its efforts to reduce carbon emissions — is that creating these new but as-yet-unspecified technologies will be the major driver of economic progress over the next half-century or so.

Other foreign policy differences are laid out simply in the priorities each candidate gives. Romney produces mostly boilerplate about a stronger military based on more spending “a minimum of four percent of GDP (gross domestic product)” that would be shepherded to avoid waste by “a team of private-sector leaders and defense experts.”

Romney also calls for strengthening worldwide U.S. alliances. He plans to accomplish this with the bold step of calling a meeting:

“If elected, one of my first acts as president would be to call for a summit of nations to address these issues. In addition to the United States, the countries convened would include other leading developed nations and moderate Muslim states. The objective of the summit would be to create a worldwide strategy to support moderate Muslims in their effort to defeat radical and violent Islam.

Obama appears to take a broader view of the nation’s foreign policy mission than Romney does. Along with his own boilerplate for strengthening the military, he calls for halting the spread of nuclear weapons (a topic Romney doesn’t mention); calls for building alliances and reforming and strengthening international institutions like the UN; investing in international health care initiatives for HIV/AIDS, malaria and avian flu; and building “just, secure, democratic societies.”

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