Obama vs. Romney: Unknowable Foreign-Policy Differences

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There's no sure way to predict who will do what if elected.

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When campaigning for the White House, Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep the United States out of World War I. Franklin Roosevelt promised to keep America out of World War II. Lyndon Johnson promised in 1964 to keep American boys out of Vietnam but sent many there a year later. Richard Nixon surprised Americans by going to China, and Ronald Reagan surprised supporters and critics alike by pursuing talks with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear stockpiles. George W. Bush promised a humble foreign policy that wouldn't involve nation-building, the antithesis of his actual behavior in office, while President Obama promised numerous breaks with the Bush approach, but has continued many of those policies and dramatically changed his stance on where a president may send troops without congressional permission.

All that history informs my take on the debate raging among Andrew Sullivan, Doug Mataconis, and Steven Taylor about whether there is likely to be "a dime's bit of difference" between the foreign policies that Obama and Romney would respectively pursue if occupying the White House come 2013. As I see it, Taylor is right that we always observe significant differences in successive administrations toward foreign affairs. I'd bet heavily on the proposition that if we could somehow see Obama Future and Romney Future they'd be very different. Without a crystal ball, however, it seems very difficult to tell exactly how they'd be different -- or which future would be better.

Here's why:

  • They've both shown a capacity to directly and unapologetically contradict their previous rhetoric with their actions. Would President Obama be more or less willing than President Romney to wage war on Iran without congressional approval? There really is no way to know.
  • There is substantial bipartisan overlap in foreign policy. Obama kept Robert Gates and David Petraeus around. Would Romney keep David Petraeus and Leon Panetta? Although Obama opposed the Iraq war, his secretary of state supported it, as did many congressional Democrats and liberal pundits. Are Republicans or Democrats souring most on Afghanistan? It's sometimes hard to tell. And isn't Romney likely to continue Obama's drone war?
  • A lot of our current policies are secret, so we can't even air them and press the candidates for their respective stands. What measures has the United States taken inside Iran to harm its nuclear program? What are we really telling Israel behind closed doors? In how many countries have our drones assassinated alleged terrorists? We don't know the answers to these questions.
Says Andrew Sullivan, making the case that Obama is clearly the better choice on foreign policy, "If Romney is elected, and if no deal with Iran is accomplished before then, we will go to war in a third Muslim country, and possibly escalate again in Afghanistan. The rebooting of the global religious war would be instant. The US will almost certainly become the guarantor of all of Greater Israel, rendering us cut off from the entire Arab and Muslim world, as well as increasingly isolated from Europe. Russia, Romney tells us, is the number one 'threat'."

Maybe.

On the other hand, as the Associated Press reported last month, "President Barack Obama said Sunday the United States will not hesitate to attack Iran with military force to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon." Obama also avowed a willingness to attack Iran in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Maybe Obama is bluffing. Maybe Mitt Romney is bluffing. Who can tell when either of those two are telling the truth? Certainly not me. I've seen too many betrayals.

Says Doug Mataconis:
I would submit that it tells us that the most likely outcome of a Romney victory in November would be, for the most part, continuity rather than radical change. Granted, there are concerns to be drawn from the rhetoric that Romney engaged in during the primary campaign regarding foreign policy issues, and which he is likely to continue to push during the General Election campaign. Leaving aside that rhetoric, though, the mainstream of American foreign policy seems to me to be really well set. Unless Mitt Romney does something totally insane like making John Bolton Secretary of State (which I would submit is about as likely as Rick Santorum being selected as the next spokesperson for GLAAD), a Romney Administration's foreign policy is likely to be not all that different from what we've seen over the past three years. Which, to be all that honest, hasn't been all that impressive.
Totally plausible. Is it true? Unknowable.

Romney could be much better than Obama or much worse, or pretty much the same, regardless of your notions of what better means, because it's very difficult to tell what he'd do, or the political climate that will shape his decisions, or even what unexpected foreign-policy challenges he'll face. There are, to be sure, differences in the larger Democratic and Republican coalitions that are likely to factor into the foreign-policy decisions made by Romney or Obama and that determine the pool of talent from which they'll draw their advisers. If I thought that information was enough to reliably tell me which candidate will, by my lights, be better on foreign policy, I'd vote for him. As yet, I find it difficult to discern how much Romney is pandering to neoconservatives as opposed to being in sympathy with them, how strong the growing anti-war sentiment in the Republican Party is, or how Romney feels about war spending.

I presume that Obama will continue to wage drone wars in a secret number of countries; keep adding to his list of people, including American citizens, to kill extra-judicially; ponder military interventions without congressional permission; and either continue to lose in or withdraw from Afghanistan.

Hence the likelihood that neither man will earn my vote.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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