Obama and Romney: Different sides of the same tune
On one global issue after another, the Republican candidate has lambasted his opponent for his alleged failure to stand up for US interests and values abroad – a traditional theme of Republican attacks on Democrats. But to the extent Romney has put forward concrete proposals, most have been all but indistinguishable from the status quo, according to both liberal and conservative analysts as well as diplomats in Washington.
The main caveat concerns a future president Romney's response to a crisis, where instincts may prove more important than long-held plans. George Bush came to office in January 2001 with a conventional list of foreign policy priorities, led by a carefully rehearsed response to the rise of China, only to veer off sharply after the 9/11 attacks.
The most immediate global crisis now which is likely to be on the top of the Oval Office in-tray for whoever wins next month's election, is the Syrian conflict. Arguably the most striking sentence in the Republican candidate's speech to the Virginia Military Institute on Monday relates to Syria.
The current administration has allowed weapons supplies to flow to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other rebel groups from the Syrian diaspora, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, rather than provide them directly.
Romney does not commit the US to supply arms, but talks about working with "our international partners" to deliver them. Whereas the Obama administration appears to have made great efforts to limit the flow largely to guns and ammunition, Romney said the rebels should be equipped with "the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets".
The FSA has already been able to get hold of anti-tank weapons, both improvised and hi-tech, with the result that Syrian government forces now use tanks much more cautiously; they rely on helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft for bombarding pro-opposition city districts.
Providing shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles in significant numbers could decisively tilt the strategic balance and accelerate the fall of the regime.
Romney argues that such actions now would strengthen US leverage in a post-Assad Syria, mitigating the resentment towards Washington expressed by most opposition groups.
Such a policy would also have a wide array of other consequences, both intended and otherwise. Romney presents the move as directed as much at Iran as Assad.
"Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them," he said. "We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran, rather than sitting on the sidelines."
Such a confrontation would have the same repercussions that persuaded Obama to stay at arm's length.
Michael O'Hanlon, a national security expert at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to the CIA chief, General David Petraeus, said Iran could retaliate against US troops in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, a substantial increase in the quantity and quality of the arms sent to the Syrian rebels would present a significant challenge to Moscow, previously described by Romney as America's "no 1 enemy".
Russia might respond by upping its own support to Assad, raising the prospect of a proxy war."Syria may be the space where Romney may want to show he is prepared to confront Russia," O'Hanlon said.
"At the moment, the US is providing logistics. Obama feels that providing arms would cross a threshold with Russia ... Romney might not hold back in the same way."
An escalation would have such far-reaching consequences, some Washington diplomats argued, that a Romney administration could well rethink the policy. They pointed out that his political career has hitherto been characterised principally by caution, and suggested that a true test of his intentions would be who, among the squabbling camps within his 30-strong coterie of foreign policy advisers, gets the big jobs if he wins.
Currently, the advisers closest to the candidate are leaning towards the neo-conservative right, including Richard Williamson, a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George W Bush administrations, Dan Senor, who served as a spokesman for the US-led occupation government in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion.
Liz Cheney, daughter of the former vice-president Dick Cheney, is believed to have written some of Romney's commentaries and speeches and, according to the New York Times, has begun to join a weekly conference call on foreign affairs issues with the candidate.
However, the strategist on the Romney national security transition team is Robert Zoellick, a former World Bank president and exponent of the moderate "realist" school of Republican foreign policy. In the European embassies in Washington, most bets are on him to become secretary of stateif Romney wins.
The narrow favourite for defence secretary is Condoleezza Rice, who helped shape the more cautious foreign policy of Bush's second term, and was given high billing at this year's Republican convention.
Robert Kagan, a neoconservative historian and adviser to the candidate, agreed that a Romney White House would be unlikely to make radical foreign policy departures.
"There is a tremendous amount of continuity between presidents," Kagan said at a debate about America's place in the world last week organised by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "Any new president only changes things 10 degrees one way or 10 degrees another."
Some Washington observers did not even detect 10 degrees of divergence. Spencer Ackerman, a writer on national security for Wired magazine, even suggested that with today's speech, Romney was in effect running "for Obama's second term".
"So Romney's foreign policy would be Obama's foreign policy, just with meaner things to say about Obama?," Ackerman tweeted.
On a range of the major foreign affairs issues outlined by Romney, the harsh words directed at Obama are not matched by a significant difference in policy. So, on the Arab spring, Romney promised to support the democratic movements across North Africa, including in Libya, where he had been a vocal sceptic over western intervention.
Similarly, despite his close links with Binyamin Netanyahu and his cynicism over the chance of a Middle East peace settlement inadvertently revealed in a leaked video last month, Romney official policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the long-term Washington orthodoxy of support for the creation of a Palestinian state alongside its Jewish neighbour.
A Romney administration might be less active than a second Obama term in pursuing such a two-state solution, but Robert Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, believes that Obama too "sees there is, right now, no opportunity for a breakthrough."
On Afghanistan too, Romney portrays himself as a fierce critic of Obama policy, but his formula for extricating the US – "a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014" – is identical to Obama's plan.
The most important foreign policy and national security decision the next president is likely to have to take is whether to launch an attack on Iran with the aim of destroying or at least hindering its nuclear programme, either alone or in concert with Israel and other allies.
That choice, O'Hanlon says, "will be the centrepiece of the next presidency, whoever wins".
"Obama may already feel he has been mired in two wars and a recession. He wants to do other things, and he recognises the interconnectedness of a decision about war to the entire presidency. Romney probably leans slightly more hawkish," O'Hanlon said.
In contrast to his pledge to take Iran on directly in Syria, Romney's use of language about the Iranian nuclear crisis is more cautious, and again represents a duplicate of Obama administration policy.
Like Obama, he suggests his red line would be to prevent Iran "from acquiring nuclear weapons capability", and would use sanctions as his primary tool to that end.
Malley said that: "The people around Romney say he is as unlikely as Obama to launch a strike against Iran."
However, some long-term observers of US engagement with Iran voiced concern that Romney's inexperience in foreign policy and his tendency to "shoot from the hip" rhetorically could upset the precarious but enduring common front with Russia and China on Iran, that the Bush and Obama administrations both made the focus of their policy.
"The Romney approach will not be fundamentally different from Obama's, with one huge exception. Romney and some of his people will say things internationally that will split the coalition Obama has been so careful to build up," said George Perkovich, an expert on non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs."No one wants to go to war. The military has made it clear that nothing can be achieved by it, and Romney would get confronted by the military on the issue on his first day in office."
The true significance of a shift from an Obama to a Romney foreign policy may only be revealed if Israel presses it into the open by forcing the next president's hand.
Romney may respond very differently to an unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites than Obama, whose cool relationship with the Israeli leader could well colour Middle East policy if he wins a second term.
Democratic foreign policy advisers suggest that an Obama White House would quickly warn Iran not to try to widen the conflict by attacking US interests or its Gulf allies. But a limited Iranian response to an Israeli strike, especially one where Washington isn't warned, might well be tolerated.
That might not be true of Romney, who diplomats and analysts predict might be slightly more ready to go to war at Israel's side if forced into a corner. But it is hard to predict the instincts of a man who has so far appeared to give foreign policy relatively little attention. Romney's world, like Obama's, is more likely to be shaped by events than by doctrine. – © Guardian News and Media 2012