Who’s winning the foreign policy debate?

It is often assumed that foreign policy is a field in which deeds matter more than words. But looking at the two presidential candidates in the 2012 election cycle, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, one might end up with the opposite impression: It is words, not deeds, that make their foreign policies seem different. 

When it comes to what to do in the world, the differences between them seem minor and occasional, and the specifics are not always easy to identify. Romney says he wants tougher sanctions on Iran, but does not share with his audience his prescription for getting there. And, in the end, his policies might end up being quite similar to Obama’s. For his part, Obama, for a very long time, has been in the business of advancing peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians without ever managing to prescribe a viable remedy to that familiarly adamant sore. His policies, rhetoric aside, have ended up not far from where Romney’s stated policy might take us.

When it comes to what to say to the world, though, the contrast between Obama and Romney suddenly becomes clearer. “I believe that if America does not lead, others will,” Romney said two weeks ago, bluntly presenting a vision of a United States that is ready to be confrontational in a world-leadership role. Obama, a couple of months before being elected president, had a very different vision: “The world,” he said, “is waiting for the United States to re-engage,” and the U.S. would find it “very difficult for us to meet these 21st century challenges unless we get more effective partnerships with our allies in other countries overseas.” Romney wants the United States to lead, whether the world likes it or not; Obama thinks that for America’s leadership to succeed, it is essential that the world likes it.

 Next week, in their third and final debate of the season, the two candidates will engage in a foreign-policy battle in Florida. This will hardly be the first time for either of them to present their respective philosophies to the public. 

For Romney, there is a problem in any such debate: his lack of a record. All he has is speeches, and one never knows whether he really intends to pursue the policies he now advocates. One never knows if he would really “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state,” as he said two weeks ago — especially so, because just last summer Romney stated that the Palestinians are not culturally fit to have a prosperous state and that chances for any such coexistence are slim. 

For Obama, there is a mirror-image problem: His record of the past four years is full of tactical achievements, but coherent strategies are rare. Yes, he was the president blessed with the opportunity to send troops to kill Osama bin Laden — arguably his greatest achievement abroad — but that achievement doesn’t say much about Obama’s policies, even as he deserves credit for having the courage and the resolve to make the decision. Obama also deserves credit for making good on many of his pledges — gradually disengaging in Iraq and Afghanistan are the prime examples. However, his policies have had mixed results at best. A stable Egypt was lost on his watch (to be fair, there wasn’t much he could do to stop that). Confidence in America’s resolve diminished (that is where his unceremonious abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did play a role). And one never quite knows if Obama has learned the proper lessons from his failures, if he has finally realized that getting the Nobel Peace Prize was premature, and remains so. 

In his “Mantle of Leadership” speech on Oct. 8 at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., Romney advocated for several policies — actual policies — that are different from Obama’s: He said he is reluctant to withdraw troops from Afghanistan based on decisions attached to the calendar. He wants more aid sent to the Syrian rebels, a point repeated by Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate. He would have warm relations with the Israeli government — while Obama rightly argues that his relations with “Israel” are just fine, the “government” is another matter. Romney would also take a tougher position on missile defense, paying the consequent price of tenser relations with Russia. And he would spend more on defense — his only pledge that signals a difference that is both strategically significant and reasonably credible. 

Oddly, as the Asia-Pacific region emerges as an area of much importance — an area that Obama celebrated in 2009 by calling himself America’s “first Pacific president” — neither candidate has thus far engaged in serious statements on the proper policy going forward in that region. The Middle East — the bloody, sticky, rioting, chaotic, treacherous Middle East — is again dominating the foreign agenda. From the blunder over the terror attack on the American embassy in Libya — an embarrassment the Obama administration can’t reasonably escape, but that, in the end, has very little strategic meaning — to Egypt, where Romney would like a more conditional approach “to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel,” to Syria, where Romney wants more aid for the rebels — a move that Vice President Joe Biden claimed is already in the works by the current administration. 

“We are working hand in glove with the Turks, with the Jordanians, with the Saudis and with all the people in the region attempting to identify the people who deserve the help so that when Assad goes  …” Biden said during the vice presidential debate. He also bluntly and accurately answered the question of why intervention was justified in Libya and is not U.S. policy in Syria. Accurately — although not when it comes to some of the details. In the heat of debate, the knowledgeable vice president mixed up his facts when he spoke about geography and population density in the two countries. Alas, Biden got it right when he spelled out the theme that has been evident to all observers of the Obama policies for quite a while: This administration doesn’t do grand strategy in the Middle East — not since its initial strategy of “engagement” collapsed in Iran and in Syria and everywhere else. What the Obama team does is crisis management. Sometimes more successfully, sometimes less so; sometimes based on a solid analysis, sometimes more on something resembling a hunch. 

In Egypt, the Obama administration decided to side with the revolutionaries, but in Bahrain, it turned a blind eye when Saudi forces crushed any attempt to advance reforms. In Libya, it intervened — leading “from behind” — but in Syria, it has not. In Iran, it pushed for tough sanctions, but refrained from more actively supporting demonstrations against the regime. All in all, it did not make many mistakes as it was watching the old order of the Middle East crumble. That’s an achievement of sorts. On the other hand, its stance was to watch events unfold — not to lead, not to initiate and, in the end, not to have much impact.

Thus, the actual policy differences between Obama and Romney — over aid, security, timetables and budget — pale in comparison to their different outlooks on what America’s leadership role should be in the world. Obama wants his policies to soothe, to cajole, to help him make friends. Romney wants to make a stand, to convey a message of strength. Although both candidates are internationalists, and both say they want America to lead the world, the kinds of leadership they are talking about sound quite different. Obama keeps arguing that his soft-spoken approach has enabled him to gain allies, and even reluctant rivals, on board in his quest to isolate Iran. Romney keeps arguing that isolation is a means to an end — stopping Iran from nuclear armament — which the Obama administration has not achieved. 

When it comes to what their policies for the next four years might look like, the two candidates, in fact, are not as far apart as one might think. When it comes to projecting an image of leading America, they are. And in foreign policy — both seem to think — image counts no less than deeds.

Shmuel Rosner is the Senior Political Editor. He is the author of “Obama vs. Romney: A Jewish Voter’s Guide” (Jewish Journal Books), available at amazon.com.