How Obama and Romney Differ—and Don't—on Foreign Policy

Charting out the 2012 U.S. presidential contenders on Iran, Afghanistan, the military, and the world ahead.

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President Obama meets with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul. (Reuters)

Last October, Mitt Romney strode onto a stage in an ornate hall at South Carolina's Citadel, one of the nation's oldest military academies, to launch a series of political broadsides against President Obama. "I will never, ever apologize for America," he thundered. "In Barack Obama's profoundly mistaken view, there is nothing unique about the United States." The coming era, Romney vowed, would be an "American Century," with the U.S. retaining the world's biggest economy and strongest military. A Romney presidency, he promised, would usher in that era.

The speech was more than just an opportunity for Romney to flex his rhetorical muscles. It represented his first--and, to date, only--attempt to articulate a specific and detailed philosophy of how he would act to keep America safe in an era of rapidly evolving threats from shadowy terrorist groups and rogue nations. The Republican deliberately drew contrasts with Obama's positions on issues ranging from the size of the armed forces to whether, or when, the United States should intervene unilaterally overseas. Perhaps the most striking aspect of the speech was its necessity: Republicans have for decades outpolled Democrats on national security; this time around, Obama and Romney are basically tied, with Obama drawing more support in several recent surveys. Romney has little choice but to play offense.

National-security and foreign-policy issues are taking a clear backseat to the economy in this year's presidential election. That's a shame, because the candidates offer voters clear choices on issues like the size of the armed forces and whether the U.S. should go it alone in dealing with Syria. At the same time, there is little daylight between them on the two most important national-security questions of the moment: the pace of the troop drawdown in Afghanistan and how far Washington should go to restrain Iran's nuclear ambitions.

DOLLARS AND CENTS

Romney and Obama have clashed over a pair of fundamental and complicated questions. First, in this era of diminished resources, what kind of role should the U.S. military play in the world? And second, can--or should--the United States continue to shoulder its long-standing duty as the world's policeman?

Obama offers one set of answers to those questions. In December 2009, the president traveled to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point to announce his plan to surge 33,000 troops into Afghanistan. He promised, though, that he wouldn't keep troops there indefinitely because, simply put, the financial costs were too high. "I refuse to set goals that go beyond our responsibility, our means, or our interests," he said, noting that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had already cost the United States $1 trillion that could have been spent at home. "We've failed to appreciate the connection between our national security and our economy.... We can't simply afford to ignore the price of these wars."

The president has since announced plans to shave $487 billion from the Pentagon's budget over the next decade, partly by cutting 100,000 ground troops and buying fewer next-generation Air Force fighters and Navy warships. The "sequester," or across-the-board automatic budget reductions, slated to kick in at the end of the year will slice another $500 billion from Defense Department coffers. Obama has made it clear that he doesn't want to see those cuts take effect, but he says he's willing to suffer the consequences rather than let Congress off the hook on a deficit-reduction deal. He says he would veto Republican efforts to remove the defense cuts from the sequester.

Romney has a starkly different national-defense philosophy. He has promised to reverse what he calls Obama's "massive" defense cuts and boost the Pentagon's budget. The presumptive GOP nominee says he wants to add 100,000 ground troops, increase the Navy's ship-buying budget from nine to 15 vessels a year, and maintain the current fleet of carrier battle groups, the most powerful--and most expensive--weapon in the U.S. seaborne arsenal. The Republican also wants to purchase more F-35s, a next-generation model of amazingly advanced, but staggeringly expensive, stealth warplanes.

The former Massachusetts governor's spending plans don't stop there. He has promised to devote more money to missile defense--including systems designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles--to protect the U.S. from potential attacks from Iran or North Korea. Romney hasn't specified how much the new programs would cost, but, if fully implemented, they would amount to billions of dollars in new spending. He has also called for protecting the Pentagon from the sequester and allowing the full budgetary ax to fall solely on domestic programs.

MILITARY INTERVENTION

Beyond the dollars and cents, Obama's national-security policy is based on the tenet that the U.S. should rarely, if ever, launch large-scale military operations without the support of key allies. In Libya, the administration dithered for months before agreeing to funnel weapons and armaments to the ragtag rebels battling Libya's Muammar el-Qaddafi. Obama didn't commit warplanes and drones to the fight until both the Arab League and the United Nations had signed off on such an intervention--and until France and Britain had dispatched larger numbers of their own planes and military assets. Carnage is continuing to mount in Syria, but the administration has steadfastly maintained that the U.S. won't use military force there because of the lack of international support for action and because other nations are not ready to contribute troops, helicopters, or warplanes to the effort.

Presented by

Yochi J. Dreazen

Yochi Dreazen is writer-in-residence at the Center for a New American Security and a contributing editor for The Atlantic.

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