from Campaign 2012

Foreign Policy and the Obama-Romney Race

Foreign policy has not played a major role in the presidential campaign so far, but a close race could make it a factor in courting "the moveable middle," says CFR’s James Lindsay.

September 7, 2012

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Although foreign policy does not appear to be a major issue in the campaign between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, "foreign policy can play a [significant] role given the needs of both campaigns to try and find people in the moveable middle that they can draw to their side," says James M. Lindsay, CFR’s expert on U.S. politics. He says that one problem that Romney shares with all challengers to a sitting president is "it is not at all clear what his foreign policy will be." He also warns that in a tight contest, a major mistake by a candidate can be decisive.

The two political conventions are now over. From what has been said, what is your estimate of how foreign affairs are going to play in the campaign?

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Broadly speaking, foreign policy is going to play a secondary role in the campaign. Look at all the polls. The American public is worried about the economy; it is worried about jobs. And the iron law of democratic politics is that politicians gravitate to the issues that people care about. So Obama and Romney are going to talk about jobs and the economy much more than they are going to talk about foreign affairs.

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That said, foreign policy can play a [significant] role given the needs of both campaigns to try to find people in the moveable middle that they can draw to their side. This is going to be a very close election by all accounts, so even an issue that doesn’t resonate with the broader public could resonate with folks in those ten battleground states that are going to decide the outcome. So you’ll probably see, over the course of the next several months, some select issues that the candidates will hit on. Obviously, Mitt Romney has been hitting on the issue of what he claims is Obama’s lack of support for Israel. Likewise, you are going to see Obama do as he did at his convention speech--point out that Osama bin Laden is dead, and he is dead because of actions his administration took. One last caveat, of course: The role of foreign policy in the campaign could change overnight, depending upon events overseas.

Such as if Israel decided to attack Iran in the next sixty days, perhaps?

Whether you are talking about an Israeli attack on Iran [or] a North Korean attack on South Korea [or] the potential for a clash in the South China Sea, there are a variety of events that could pop up that could change the course of the conversation.

Can President Obama take credit for ending the Iraq war, since Bush signed the agreement on the pull out timetable? And on Afghanistan, he keeps saying U.S. troops will be out by the end of 2014, but clearly they won’t all be out; there will still be about 20,000 U.S. advisers.

On the issue of Iraq, it brings to mind the old saying that when you are president, if good things happen on your watch you take credit for them regardless of how important you were to their occurring, because if bad things happen, you are going to take the blame.

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Barack Obama in 2007-2008 campaigned to get out of Iraq. It is not at all clear that President George W. Bush would have signed the Status of Forces Agreement leading to the U.S. exit from Iraq last December if Senator John McCain had won the [2008] election, because McCain ran on a pledge to stay in Iraq for the duration. Bush signed the Status of Forces Agreement, but it was Obama who carried it out. Presidents can often overturn the decisions made by their predecessors. So on that score, the president can quite rightly say, "I made a promise, I carried forth on it."

This is going to be a very close election by all accounts, so even an issue that doesn’t resonate with the broader public could resonate with folks in those ten battleground states that are going to decide the outcome.

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On the issue of Afghanistan, what’s interesting is that both candidates are actually behind the American public. If you look at public opinion polls, it is very clear that Americans want to get out of Afghanistan. You note that after 2014, there will be a sizeable American military presence remaining behind there. Romney has tried in a number of speeches, especially during the Republican primary campaign, to distance himself from Barack Obama and to create the impression that he would have a significantly different Afghanistan policy. But other than disagreeing over the timing of when a troop withdrawal might begin, he looks to be pretty much in the same, let’s say area code, as Obama. But obviously, a problem one has with Romney is that it is not at all clear what his foreign policy will be. That is the same for any candidate who is running as a challenger to the president.

Is there any difference between the two on Iran?

It’s hard to say what the differences are in terms of substance. It’s clear there is a difference in terms of tone. Obviously, Romney, over the course of his campaign, has implied that he will somehow take tougher action against Iran and that Obama has been insufficiently tough. But when you ask how does [his policy] differ from what President Obama has done, and why should we expect it to be more successful, the answers to those questions are not obvious.

Romney has not committed himself to using force. He has said all options are on the table; that is what the administration has said. He has called for tougher sanctions, but that is what the administration has done.

Plus, we always have to keep in mind that if Romney becomes president, he would take office in January; that is several months down the road. Events in the region could change quite dramatically, so policy options that might have seemed feasible in September 2012 could fall by the wayside by February or March of 2013.

One significant difference seems to be over Russia. Romney has said that Russia is a threat to the United States and that the reset policy of President Obama hasn’t worked. Both Biden and Obama implied that Romney didn’t know what he was talking about.

Romney has gone out of his way to say, time and time again, that Russia is America’s number one geopolitical threat. That has raised eyebrows not just among administration officials, but also among a number of Republican strategists who look at Russia and say Russia is not an American foe, it’s in some sense more of a "frenemy." That is, there are some issues that we can work with them on and they are important to us, most notably on the issue of what’s called the Northern Distribution Network, the supply lines to American troops in Afghanistan.

Now obviously, on other issues they differ. Romney has talked about Russia as our geopolitical foe and indicated that he probably would not want to engage in arms control negotiations with the Russians, which the Obama administration has spoken about but hasn’t made much progress on since the signing of the New START Treaty. It’s not at all clear what specific policy changes come out of a denunciation of Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe. If Romney becomes president, he is going to have to deal with President Vladimir Putin because the nature of world politics is that you have to deal with people, even if you don’t like them.

If Obama should be reelected, do you think he will move very quickly to try to get a second START Treaty?

What’s really interesting about Obama’s convention acceptance speech is he talked at great length about foreign policy, far more than Romney did in his acceptance speech in Tampa. That was remarkable because traditionally, you think of the Republican Party as being the party of national security and the Democrats being the party that wants to talk about peace and coming home. I think that really does show a shift between the two parties on this issue.

What Obama did was he talked basically about his accomplishments, almost like a checklist, talking about Iraq, terrorism, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden being killed, tribute to American troops, then a run-through of mistakes or shortcomings of Romney’s foreign policy. But what he didn’t really talk about is what he would really want to do in his second term, what his priorities would be.

On the specific issue of opening up new arms control negotiations with the Russians, that’s clearly something the administration would like to do. Go back to the president’s speech in Prague in April 2009. He indicated he would like to lower the number of nuclear weapons on both sides. But his ability to do that, to enact that agenda, is going to be constrained and hampered by domestic opposition in the United States. At the end of the day, if you want to negotiate a treaty, you have to get two-thirds plus one in the Senate, and unless something really remarkable changes in the November 6 election, you’re going to have more than thirty-four Republican senators. So that makes the task of negotiating a new treaty daunting.

Moreover, as you get lower and lower in terms of numbers [of missiles], a lot of difficult military insecurity issues begin to pop up. Now you begin to factor in the Chinese arsenal, which is getting large. You may want to look down the road at the Pakistani or Indian arsenals. You have the issue of missile defense. Obviously, what the administration would hope from any deal with the Russians would be significant cuts in Russian short-range battlefield tactical nuclear weapons. But the Russians, again, aren’t really indicating that that is a high priority for them because that is the one thing they happen to have in great abundance.

Any thoughts on the October 22 foreign policy debate between Obama and Romney?

That will be two weeks before the election, and obviously, when you have a debate, you have the chance that one or perhaps both of the candidates says something that he is going to regret within minutes of the debate ending. The most famous case being President Gerald Ford back in 1976 debating challenger Jimmy Carter, and Ford conveyed the impression that he thought Poland was not under Soviet domination. It became a major problem for him. If he had had a fifteen percentage point lead in the polls, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nobody but a few foreign policy experts would recall it, but in a neck-and-neck race, a little misstep like that on the eve of an election can change votes and can change the outcome.

This election is likely going to come down to not just the ten or so battleground states, but a total of somewhere between twelve and twenty counties in those states. This is where the battles are being fought. So how many voters you move in, let’s say, Tampa, Florida, and the surrounding suburbs could very much end up determining who is going to be the next president of the United States.


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