After several days of fierce campaign fighting, blustery press releases and snippy surrogates on cable, the major differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney on foreign policy are ones of personality, not policy — and even the personality differences are probably overstated. As President, Obama has largely kept in place the counterterrorism programs put in place by the Bush administration after 9/11. Romney has hired Bush administration alums like Dan Senor and John Bolton for his foreign policy team. While there have been some times in which Republicans have criticized Obama for not being aggressive enough in Libya, and then too agressive, Romney eventually agreed that the world was better off without Muammar Qaddafi. And on the big fight between the campaigns this week, they mostly agree. Romney condemned Obama for sympathizing with the attackers on the American embassies in Cairo and Benghazi because the Cairo embassy posted a condemnation of an anti-Islam film. Obama doesn't disagree with Romney that the statement was dumb. "The statement by Embassy Cairo was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government," an administration official said. But that said, Romney doesn't completely disagree with the sentiment that both he and the President think shouldn't have been released. He told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos:
I think it’s dispiriting sometimes to see some of the awful things people say. And the idea of using something that some people consider sacred and then parading that out a negative way is simply inappropriate and wrong. And I wish people wouldn’t do it. Of course, we have a First Amendment. And under the First Amendment, people are allowed to do what they feel they want to do. They have the right to do that, but it’s not right to do things that are of the nature of what was done by, apparently this film.
That's not all that different from what the embassy said:
"Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."
On Friday, Romney's foreign policy team explained its differences with Obama to The New York Times's David E. Sanger and Ashley Parker. While they said Romney would have a different policy toward Obama on Iran, it looks awfully similar. Romney's team says that unlike Obama, Romney will draw a "red line" to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon, which is what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants. But they don't say where this red line is. And they say it might be a different red line than Netanyahu's.
[Foreign policy adviser Eliot] Cohen said that Mr. Romney “would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver’s turn away from a nuclear weapon.” But he stopped short of saying exactly where, in the development of nuclear capability, Mr. Romney would draw the line. It could be in a different place than Mr. Netanyahu draws it, he said.
As Stephanopoulos pointed out to Romney, Obama's position is essentially the same -- and Romney agreed!
STEPHANOPOULOS: ... What is your red line with Iran?
ROMNEY: Well, my red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon. It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world...
STEPHANOPOULOS: President Obama said exactly the same thing. He said it’s unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. So your red line is the same as his.
ROMNEY: Yeah, and I laid out what I would do to keep Iran from reaching that red line...
STEPHANOPOULOS: But your red line going forward is the same?
As The Times reports, Romney's red line is actually intentionally vague. "That vagueness is crucial because by some definitions, Iran already has the capability to produce a nuclear weapon, though it might take several months or years to realize," the newspaper reports.
It's not that there aren't legitimate debates to be had. Is our drone war in Pakistan a good idea? What should we do after we leave Afghanistan? But polls show the war has been really unpopular for a long time, and no one really cares about them. In April, Pew Research Center found that Afghanistan and terrorism had dropped significantly among issues that would be "very important" to voters this election.
The campaigns know that. The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin, who is close to the Romney campaign, wrote Friday in reference to the controversy over the Middle East protests, "Inside the Romney camp, senior advisers are genuinely perplexed that the campaign is criticized for not talking more about issues that have very little if any electoral benefit."
Instead, they're just using foreign policy as a way to project the candidates' personalities. Obama's trying to show he's cool-headed decider with deep experience. Romney's trying to show he's a strong manly man who will stand up for an insulted America. But Romney and Obama have pretty similar personalities -- aloof, not that many friends, introverted, technocratic, health-conscious, and no military experience. So even the superficial debate about personality is a fake one.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.