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Romney an echo of Obama

In many ways, however, it is likely to look uncannily familiar.

On one global issue after another the Republican presidential candidate has lambasted his opponent for his alleged failure to stand up for United States 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 W 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 is the Syrian conflict. Arguably the most striking sentence in the Republican candidate's speech to the Virginia Military Institute this week relates to Syria. The current administration has allowed weapons supplies to flow to the Free Syrian Army 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.

Providing shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles in significant numbers could decisively tilt the strategic balance and accelerate the fall of the regime. However, 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 at Syria's president Bashar al-Assad.

Sitting on the sidelines
"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 in Washington 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 the "number one enemy" of the US.

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 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.

The advisers closest to the candidate at present are leaning towards the neo-conservative right, including Richard Williamson, a veteran of the Ronald Reagan and George W Bush administrations, and Dan Senor, who served as a spokesperson for the US-led occupation government in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion.

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 state.

Robert Kagan, a neo-conservative 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 the US's place in the world last week. "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 this week's speech Romney was in effect running "for Obama's second term".

Despite his close links with Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, Romney's 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.

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 said, "will be the centrepiece of the next presidency, whoever wins".

In contrast to his pledge to take on Iran 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.

Romney's inexperience
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.

"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 nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

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 a 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.

Although 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 & Media 2012

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Julian Borger
Julian Borger
Julian Borger is a British journalist and non-fiction writer. He is the world affairs editor at The Guardian. He was a correspondent in the US, eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Balkans and covered the Bosnian War for the BBC. Borger is a contributor to Center of International Cooperation.

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