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Romney Prepares to Battle Obama on Foreign Policy

So far, foreign policy has been almost wholly absent from the presidential race. The Wall Street Journal thinks this is about to change. Following the convention in Tampa, the Romney camp is reportedly preparing a series of speeches and events to highlight its criticisms of the Obama administration’s foreign policies.

This case will be difficult to make. President Obama’s foreign policy is much more popular than his economic policy. That’s a reversal from many past election cycles, when Republicans were favored on foreign-policy grounds and Democrats had more support on economic issues.

It’s always hard for a challenger without a lot of foreign policy experience to attack a sitting president. The American public is worried about the state of the world, but it doesn’t want a lot of wars or noise. Now Romney faces a dilemma. If he sounds alarmist or radical about foreign policy, he is likely to turn people off. But if Romney endorses, or even fails to criticize, Obama’s foreign policy, he will alienate part of the Republican base and will concede an important field of presidential leadership to his opponent.

Via Meadia will be watching carefully for indications of the changes Romney intends to make. Obama’s foreign policy is not all that different from that of President Bush’s second term; Romney, likewise, probably wouldn’t be that different from Obama on many issues.

And in any case, events will have more of an influence over American foreign policy than anything else. Remember that George W. Bush attacked the Clinton administration for too much activism,  too much nation-building, and too little humility.

We see some real problems with current American foreign policy. In the Middle East our approach has been muddled by illusions that disrupt what is otherwise a pretty professional team. We are not sure if the administration understands just how large the defense budget will have to be to support the “pivot to Asia.” Washington has essentially marginalized itself in the discussion over Europe’s future. It is anything but clear that this administration has a handle on Pakistan policy. And the default assumption by some in the administration that the United States needs to be preparing for a generation of decline seems out of touch with emerging world trends.

But none of these problems make for the kind of barn-burning rhetoric that a presidential challenger needs. And many of the decisions for which the administration can be criticized would be very hard for any government to get right. The challenges posed by the Arab Spring (perhaps more correctly viewed as the Sunni surge) are not easy to deal with. And if anybody has an answer to America’s Pakistan dilemmas, please tell the White House immediately.

Given all that, the most important task for a challenger in the field of foreign policy is to show the candidate as a serious statesman. Americans don’t want to be scared by their president. Criticizing Obama without looking wide-eyed or radical is the strategic challenge that Romney now needs to meet.

Given the state of the domestic economy, Romney doesn’t need to win the foreign policy argument to win the election. But at a minimum he needs to establish a sense among the public that he can be trusted with the dangerous task of shaping America’s responses to an unpredictable world.

John McCain missed a real opportunity in 2008 by not campaigning on his proven ability as a peacemaker. Other Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon held hawkish views on many issues but avoided getting labeled as pro-war, anti-peace candidates. John McCain’s experience at promoting reconciliation between the US and Vietnam could have been an effective base for an argument that precisely because he was tough and experienced, he was the person best able to end America’s current wars while keeping us safe. Especially after many long years of war in the Middle East, Americans want steady hands on the tiller. Many will buy the argument that a tough stance and a strong military are useful as the best ways to ensure peace; few at this point are hungry for campaigns that promise to raise the international temperature.

Lacking Senator McCain’s long experience and military credibility, Governor Romney will have to think carefully about how he crafts a ‘strength for peace’ campaign. But getting this right is important if the GOP hopes to contest the foreign policy terrain this fall. Americans don’t want hotheads in the White House any more than they want ditherers and serial apologizers. They want a president they can count on to make them feel safe, and that doesn’t mean a foreign policy of confrontation.

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  • Jim.

    I suspect a lot of this will descend into attack ads where SEALs criticize the President for revealing their identities for political gain (whether this reaches the heights of “swift boat” remains to be seen) and there may be some attempts to demoralize Obama’s base by comparing him to GWB.

    What can be accomplished before then? Well, Tampa seems like a good venue for declarations of support for Israel. Florida itself is a good venue, and Neil Armstrong’s recent death provides a good segue, to announce a commitment to America’s continuing leadership in the world through peaceful, inspiring examples like our space program. (Go NewSpace if you want to put in a plug for private sector over government).

    Romney should demonstrate an approach to ME policy that doesn’t bog us down yet prevents the worst; a Russia policy that doesn’t allow Putin to use us as a doormat; a Europe policy that doesn’t involve fawning imitation; an Africa policy that encourages stable investment and steady gains in standard of living; an India policy that involves internal development but prevents rampant offshoring of American jobs; and a China / Pacific policy that emphasizes peaceful growth and enough US military power to marginalize any Chinese pol who gets the crazy idea to challenge us militarily.

  • thibaud

    Finally, a return to insightful, knowledgeable, straight-shooting from Mr Mead. Thank you.

    A modest proposal: Could we please have a separation of these judicious and well-informed, Dr Jekyll-Mead foreign policy commentaries from Mr Hyde-Mead’s growling, sneering flapdoodle on domestic issues? They don’t belong on the same website.


  • Nathan

    Jim @1 – while I think your assessment of the ads by (former I believe) SEALs and special operators to be an “attack ad” is correct, I find the attack to be well-founded. I can’t think of a valid reason for the administration to fritter away intelligence on how our military operates. Comparisons to the swiftboating of John Kerry seem misplaced.

  • thibaud

    No one can say that Romney isn’t well-versed in Caribbean affairs.

  • Anthony

    “Obama’s foreign policy is not all that different from that of President Bush’s second term; Romney…on many issues.” … not much to add here beyond imponderables (events) effecting any President – Foreign policy challenges are often more centrifugal than centripetal.

  • WigWag

    “No one can say that Romney isn’t well-versed in Caribbean affairs.” (thibaud)

    And let’s not forget another area of foreign policy where Romney beats Obama hands down; Romney can brag about his initimate knowledge of the Swiss banking system.

    Has there ever been a presidential candidate with a more acute understanding of how the Swiss run their banks than Mitt Romney?

    I don’t think so!

    Score one for Mitt.

  • Jim.


    Please consider the probability that you have as much to learn from Mead’s posts on domestic issues as you have to learn from his posts on foreign policy.

  • OldCurmudgeon

    “It’s always hard for a challenger without a lot of foreign policy experience to attack a sitting president.”

    I’d suggest criticizing Obama’s tendency to treat our closest allies poorly. This ‘second reset button’ would fit well with his recent visit to England, Poland, and Isreal.

  • thibaud

    @ Jim. – re Mead’s domestic fare, anyone who reads the NYT, WSJ, Economist etc won’t learn anything (valid) from Mead that he didn’t already know.

    To paraphrase Dr J, there’s much in Mead’s domestic posts that’s new and true, but the new parts aren’t true and the true parts aren’t new.

    The best examples of the former are Mead’s constant dog-bites-man posts about the fragile state of US public pensions and his more recent gasfest about how african-american unemployment is higher than white unemployment.

    Examples of the latter include Mead’s very novel, and very absurd, characterizations of US K-12 education as overly centralized and of US future employment growth being driven by Kickstarter and 3D printing. Yesterday we learned from Mead that Obama’s not been sufficiently radical in hastening the demise of professional guilds.

    There’s also Mead’s laziness when it comes to doing rudimentary analysis. Re pension shortfalls, for example, you’d think a social scientist would at least bother to try to quantify the contribution of potential factors so as to accurately assess their relative weight. The Economist’s journalists do this in brief pieces; every competent journalist does so. But instead, Mead gives us words, words words: endless riffs on his ridiculously lite “BS model”, with no attempt to analyze the data, make valid comparisons, or even peruse the vast amount of analysis cranked out by Mercer and hundreds of others.

    This is not helpful. This is dumbing down a very important discussion. Mead knows better.

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