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.


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.


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.

Romney's conception of when to use American military power has been less easy to discern. In the early days of the Libyan military intervention, he criticized Obama for ruling out the use of ground forces, and he mockingly told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that the U.S. was "following France into Libya" instead of serving as "the leader of the world." One month later, Romney said that Obama's call for Qaddafi's departure had shifted the U.S. mission there from protecting Libyan civilians to de facto regime change, deriding the unstated objective as an example of "mission creep and mission muddle." The GOP contender initially conceded that Obama deserved some credit for Qaddafi's eventual fall; today, his campaign asserts that the credit belongs to the Libyan people, not to the president.

Romney also differs with Obama on Syria, although the degree of difference is not quite as significant as his campaign contends. The former governor argues that the United States should directly train, fund, and arm the Syrian rebels, who are badly outgunned by forces loyal to dictator Bashar al-Assad. The Obama administration is providing nonlethal aid to the opposition forces but opposes giving them weapons because of uncertainty about the composition of the rebel forces and their possible ties to al-Qaida. Romney's GOP Senate allies, Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, have long argued that the United States should carry out air strikes on targets inside Syria. Neither Obama nor Romney wants to go that far.


The biggest and most complicated national-security questions of the day are the ones, surprisingly, where there is the least daylight between the two candidates.

Take Iran, which both candidates believe is pursuing nuclear weapons. During a campaign event in Georgia last month, Romney said that Obama's efforts to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions had failed, and he bluntly declared, "If Barack Obama is reelected, Iran will have a nuclear weapon." Still, although Romney has said he would consider using military force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, he stopped short of promising to do so; Obama's position is the same. Romney has promised to deploy carrier battle groups to the Eastern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, and he has accused Obama of failing to send adequate military resources to the region to counter Iran. Obama has, however, sharply increased naval operations in the Gulf, deployed tens of thousands of troops to the region, and helped to fund the development of new missile-defense systems in Israel. The president has also agreed to sell dozens of F-15s to Saudi Arabia, Iran's strategic opponent, as part of the largest foreign arms sale in American history.

Romney supported--and the White House initially opposed, but ultimately signed--legislation to impose sanctions on Iran's central bank. The White House now acknowledges that the measures have driven Iran's currency to record lows and savaged the country's economy. When the White House dispatched Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to warn Israel that a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would risk destabilizing the region, Romney dismissed the effort as mere delaying, rather than stopping, Iran's nuclear push. (During the Bush years, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen delivered the same warnings to the Israelis.)

The two candidates' differences over Afghanistan are also less significant than they might appear. Romney has bashed Obama for ignoring the advice of his generals and setting an 18-month deadline for beginning to remove the surge troops from Afghanistan. He also says he opposes peace talks with the Taliban, a central part of the White House's exit strategy from Afghanistan.

The political broadsides obscure the fact that the two men see eye to eye on the timing of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, far and away the most important and most politically sensitive aspect of the entire Afghan debate. Even though Romney believes that Obama erred by announcing a withdrawal time line, he supports the administration's plans to remove virtually all American troops by the end of 2014. The GOP nominee has said he wants U.S. troops to come home as soon as possible and argues that the Afghan security forces need to assume more responsibility as quickly as possible. Obama's has said virtually the same.


Certainly, a Romney White House and a second-term Obama administration would approach national security differently. Romney would add more money to the Pentagon's coffers; Obama would cut defense spending by as much as $1 billion over the next decade. Romney would arm the Syrian rebels if Assad remained in power and would consider air strikes; Obama would likely continue to rely on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions. More broadly, Romney would seek to preserve the long-standing American role in policing the world--alone if necessary--while Obama would continue to try to share the risks and costs with allies. Differences would be mainly around the margins when it comes to Afghanistan but would be potentially far reaching on Iran.

In a normal election, pundits and voters would be weighing and arguing those differences. This time around, national-security issues have been pushed into the background by the unrelenting national focus on the economy. If campaign appearances and ads are any indication, the two candidates seem perfectly content with that.