Foreign Policy Gets a Rare Look on the Campaign Trail This Week

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney gestures during a campaign stop on Wednesday, July 18, 2012 in Bowling Green, Ohio.  (National Journal)

Stuck in the backstage shadows of a presidential campaign dominated by the economy, international issues get a rare moment in the spotlight this week. Both President Obama and Mitt Romney will give important foreign-policy speeches before the Republican challenger leaves on a three-country trip designed to highlight his differences with the current administration's diplomacy. The president will address the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno on Monday, with his opponent taking the same podium on Tuesday. Then on Wednesday, Romney leaves for London, the start of a trip he hopes will reassure allies overseas, who always fret about change in U.S. leadership, as well as voters back home, who always worry when a governor with no foreign-policy experience wants to be president.

The dueling speeches and the trip come against a backdrop of a presidential campaign that has given little attention to the diplomatic difficulties awaiting the next president. The dozens of GOP debates in the primaries included only a handful of questions on international issues with base-friendly rhetoric substituting for thoughtful discussion. No one expects foreign policy to determine the winner of the election or achieve the high place on the agenda it enjoyed during the Cold War. But Romney faces the same challenge of any diplomatically inexperienced challenger taking on an incumbent: He must show that he is sure-footed enough to pass the threshold test that he can be trusted to be commander in chief. And that makes the stakes of the coming week particularly high for him.

Polling shows Obama enjoying a clear advantage over Romney on questions related to being commander in chief. Asked which candidate would do the best job on making wise decisions about foreign policy, voters told the Pew Research Center in early July they favored Obama over Romney 48 percent to 40 percent. In 2008 at the same time in that campaign, challenger Obama was down by only one point to Republican Sen. John McCain. Voters in this month's Pew survey gave a bigger advantage to Obama — 50 percent to 38 percent — on who would best defend the United States from terrorist attacks. In a poll conducted by Pew in early June, Obama also had a big advantage over Romney — 50 to 37 — on which candidate would show good judgment in a crisis.

In 2008, Republicans made a concerted effort to tag then-Sen. Obama as too inexperienced to be trusted on foreign or military matters. But Obama whittled away at McCain's lead and reached parity with the more-experienced Republican by Election Day. Today, the Democratic attacks on Romney have been more nuanced and less blunt, emphasizing the president's record and experience and focusing questions on what Vice President Joe Biden has characterized as the challenger's efforts to "return us to a past we've worked so hard to move beyond." Biden and the White House contend Romney would "take us back" to the policies of President George W. Bush "that got us into the mess that President Obama has dug us out of."

But one of the reasons why there has been less passion in the 2012 foreign- policy debate compared with 2008 is that most foreign-policy experts accept Romney's credentials and see two candidates with foreign policies firmly in the mainstream. "If a candidate doesn't pass the basic commander in chief test then he typically is not going to win," said Michael E. O'Hanlon,  a respected foreign-policy analyst at the Brookings Institution who has co-authored Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy. "I believe that in this election both Obama and Romney do pass that test." He credited Obama with "overall a very competent and pragmatic foreign policy" and noted that he expects to vote for him. But he called Romney "an impressive, pragmatic, smart guy" who appears "pretty capable" on foreign policy. This, he said, helps explain why foreign policy has received such little attention in the campaign.

"If Obama had a weak record or if Romney didn't seem up to the job, then I think you would see that this whole issue would matter because then that whole 3 a.m. question would resound and echo in voters' minds. But you've got two guys that look pretty competent and on the substance of the issues there is not any huge disagreement on any particular question with maybe one or two exceptions," he said.

Of course, you would never discern the basic Obama-Romney consensus from the overheated campaign rhetoric. Democrats have accused Romney of ignorance on Russia, naivete on Iran, pandering on Israel, and recklessness on Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney, in turn, contends that Obama has "thrown Israel under the bus" and accuses the president of being "pliant" with Russia, kowtowing to China, taking a "soft line" toward Cuba and Venezuela, and mishandling Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He has dismissed Obama's foreign policy as "a sad replay of Jimmy Carter's bungling." But the fundamental differences are less than suggested by the rhetoric.

"In any campaign there are attempts to try to find daylight," said P.J. Crowley, a veteran of President Clinton's National Security Council and Obama's State Department. "Yet there is, for good reason, a significant amount of continuity across administrations on foreign policy. So usually it ends up that challengers go for style points and not necessarily talk about substance."

Most analysts praise Romney for surviving the primary battles with few foreign-policy gaffes — with the notable exception of a comment he made about Russia, which drew almost universal criticism. It was in March when the candidate called Russia the No. 1 "geopolitical foe" of the United States. Romney was roundly attacked for trying to revive the Cold War, ignoring the many areas where Russia works in sync with Washington, and being blind to bigger threats. "Russia is a big case where the instincts differ quite a bit," said O'Hanlon. "Obama is quite proud of his Russia reset policy while he doesn't love Vladimir Putin necessarily. But Romney seems to suggest the whole thing has been a mistake or a setback."

The Middle East is the other area of real difference, said O'Hanlon, noting that Romney is trying to take advantage of some significant missteps by Obama in dealing with Israel and the peace process.

But perhaps the most important differences between the two candidates are in areas not traditionally considered part of foreign policy but which have enormous impact on the nation's ability to execute its foreign policy and achieve aims overseas — defense spending and economic policy. "The dividing line between what is domestic and what is international long ago disappeared," said Crowley. "So international affairs are absolutely playing a role in the election whether we recognize it or not."

O'Hanlon made a similar point, arguing, "Foreign policy has to be viewed in broader terms. And the fundamental strength of the nation's economy is central to our foreign policy." He added, "I don't think either one does enough to reduce the deficit and I think that issue is integral to foreign policy."