Foreign policy: In favor of Obama

[Related: In favor of Romney]

In debates over which candidate, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, most supports Israel, many have made the case, including in the Journal, that the president’s staunchly pro-Israel policies speak for themselves. This debate must also include a broader point: Israel needs more than America’s military, economic and political support. It needs a United States engaged in global diplomacy, with high standing worldwide, capable of advancing our shared objectives. 

On these counts, President Obama has succeeded: Among other things, American troops are out of Iraq; al-Qaeda is a threat but in tatters, its leader dead; Libya, with U.S. help, rid itself of Muammar Gadhafi; the United States won a seat on the Human Rights Council, where it stands against lopsided anti-Israel resolutions; and the list goes on, whether looking at U.S. policy in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the U.N., Africa or elsewhere. The crushing sanctions now imposed on Iran exist only because of effective Obama administration diplomacy. 

What about Mitt Romney? Like many previous candidates, Gov. Romney has almost no foreign-policy experience. But last week he gave a speech on foreign policy that should give pause to those who worry about Israel’s security and quest for peace. He talked tough and sounded reassuring, but the actual policy prescriptions — like those of George W. Bush before him — would undermine Israel’s long-term strategic needs.

At one level, the speech was riddled with deceit about the Obama record, as Tom Friedman pointed out in The New York Times. Yet the fate of American foreign policy, and its implications for Israel, will rest more on Romney’s worldview than his posturing as a candidate. Two areas in particular should raise deep concern: Romney’s positions on the use of force and unilateralism, the signature postures of the Bush doctrine.

Bush felt strongly supportive toward Israel. But his policies backfired: The go-it-alone war in Iraq opened strategic space for Iran. The inhumane treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib left deeply negative impressions on people already prepared to see the United States as a bully in the region. The failure to engage world opinion left the United States unable to defend Israel in key international forums.

Romney seemed unaware that the broader foreign policy choices would, like Bush’s, undermine America’s ability to advance its own and Israel’s objectives.

 First, the speech suggests a Bush-like attraction to the language of force. Pressing for a change of course in the Middle East, Romney argues that Americans must have “resolve in our might.” To hit the point home, he adds that we cannot “defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds, when our defense spending is being arbitrarily and deeply cut” (which, incidentally, President Obama has not done). Presidents must “use America’s great power to shape history.”

Romney sees “might” as more central than right. But a Middle East policy that rests on the power of arms to effect change is not only bound to fail, it can foster the same problems we seek to avoid. 

Consider Iraq, a “war of choice” (in the words of former Bush administration official Richard Haass) that enhanced the position of Iran in the Middle East, brought al-Qaeda and sectarian conflict to play, and ultimately left thousands of Americans and Iraqis dead and many more thousands injured, and millions displaced from their homes. Romney did not seem to understand the scars that our military engagement in Iraq has left on the broader region, including negative consequences for the security of Israel. 

Would he attack Iran if the nuclear issue is not resolved? Despite his martial rhetoric, the answer isn’t clear. He might. So might a second-term Obama administration. But the speech gave the impression that he would use force precipitously and without doing the hard diplomacy to build international support.

Of course, the United States needs a strong defense strategy. And this is an area where even some of President Obama’s progressive supporters complain, as President Obama has used drones to kill suspected terrorists (even American citizens) in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Yet the Obama administration understands that force alone cannot stand as the central pillar of U.S. policy. 

Second, Romney seemed to prefer unilateralism to multilateralism, much as President Bush did. Romney revels in suggesting that the United States cannot “lead from behind,” something the Obama administration has never embraced. Instead, there is a unilateralist hum throughout Romney’s speech. “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions,” he claimed, though unilateral sanctions would be the most likely to destroy the harsh and far more effective multilateral ones the Obama administration has put in place against Iran, even managing to win over countries such as Russia and China. Romney sees Russia and China as adversaries to confront, not convert. 

One may have disagreed with Obama’s willingness to engage adversaries, but he emphasized it when running for president in 2008. He tried it with Iran when he took office, and now, because the administration pursued a multilateral approach and attempted diplomacy with Iran, the United States is in a much better position to use forceful measures against a recalcitrant adversary if need be. Romney gives no indication that he has the kind of strategic foresight Obama had as a candidate and deploys as president.

Romney’s unilateralist bent is out of sync with a world where diplomacy and coalition-building are more critical than ever. The speech showed him committed to the rhetoric and centrality of military force in the aftermath of a disastrous American war in the region. Neither of these stances would advance American objectives in the region: the security of Israel at peace with the Palestinians, a nuclear-free Iran, a transition to rights-respecting democratic governance throughout the Arab world, a stable region of developing free-market economies. To the contrary, unilateralism and force undermine the United States’ ability to persuade others to follow our lead.  

Romney showed that he would be much more like George W. Bush than Barack Obama in his conduct of foreign affairs. And for those worried about the long-term security of Israel, that has to be a concern.

David Kaye is a law professor at UC Irvine School of Law and a former lawyer with the U.S. Department of State.