Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy Challenge

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The Republican's attacks on Obama are more rhetorical than substantive. Is he trapped by his party's longstanding foreign-policy divisions?

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It's considered bad form for a president's political opponents to bash him overseas, so Mitt Romney, who is about to embark on a weeklong trip to England, Israel and Poland, decided to get the criticism out of his system while still on U.S. soil Tuesday. In a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Reno, Romney unloaded on President Obama, even going so far as to accuse him of deliberately weakening American defenses.

"If you don't want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your president," Romney said. "But with these cuts to the military, you have that president today."

Romney's speech was full of such blustery rhetoric, accusing Obama of adopting too weak and apologetic a posture toward the rest of the world. Tone is important in diplomacy, and it's possible that simply by taking a tougher rhetorical stance a President Romney would make a major change in the way the U.S. relates to the rest of the world.

But Democrats question whether Romney has real, substantive differences with Obama's foreign policies. For example, Romney harshly criticizes Obama for his timetable for pulling troops out of Afghanistan by 2014, calling it election-oriented political posturing; yet Romney, too, would pull out of Afghanistan by 2014. Similarly, Romney and his advisers blast Obama for not being sufficiently loyal to Israel, but the No. 1 thing he would do differently, according to his campaign, is a symbolic gesture: making Israel the destination of his first presidential trip. (Here's the full white paper on Romney's foreign policy proposals.)

Meanwhile, the defense cuts Romney blames Obama for are the result of a bipartisan agreement intended to scare Congress into reaching a budget deal. And his claim that the White House was to blame for leaking national security secrets was sourced to a Democratic senator who now says she was only speculating.

If Romney's foreign-policy disagreements with Obama are more tonal than substantive, that could be because Obama's foreign policy record, unlike his economic performance, remains broadly popular. And in an election likely to be decided mainly on economic grounds, foreign policy isn't likely to play a major role.

But Romney also appears to be trapped by his own party's foreign-policy divisions -- the ongoing battle between neocons and pragmatists within the Republican Party establishment. Reuters' Mark Hosenball recently described a Romney foreign-policy team "bogged down in feuding and dysfunction":

The team includes personalities strongly identified with contending factions whose internecine battles have dogged Republican foreign policy circles for a generation. One, more pragmatic, group is known as the "moderates." Members of the other, with a harder ideological edge, are loosely known as "neocons," short for neo-conservatives.

Already, fights have broken out over touchstone issues such as Russia and China, according to individuals close to the campaign.

One Romney campaign contributor who has interacted with the outside advisers said they held only one meeting as a group, in the offices of former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. It ended in an argument between moderates and neocons over Afghanistan policy.

Some Republican heavyweights from the more pragmatic, realpolitik school, including President George H.W. Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, have declined thus far to endorse Romney.

And the New York Times' David Sanger reported in May:

Mr. Romney's own advisers, judging by their public writing and comments, possess widely differing views -- often a result of the scar tissue they developed in Iraq, Afghanistan and other Bush-era experiments in the exercise of American power. But what has struck both his advisers and outside Republicans is that in his effort to secure the nomination, Mr. Romney's public comments have usually rejected mainstream Republican orthodoxy. They sound more like the talking points of the neoconservatives -- the "Bolton faction," as insiders call the group led by John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations. In a stormy tenure in the Bush administration, Mr. Bolton was often arguing that international institutions, the United Nations included, should be routed around because they so often frustrate American interests.

Curiously for a Republican candidate with virtually no foreign policy record, Mr. Romney has made little effort to court the old-timers of Republican internationalism, from the former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft to the former secretaries of state James A. Baker III, George P. Shultz and even the grandmaster of realism, Henry A. Kissinger. And in seeking to define himself in opposition to President Obama, Mr. Romney has openly rejected positions that George W. Bush came around to in his humbler second term.

If Romney doesn't have a clear path on foreign policy, that may be because these days, his party doesn't either.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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