Mitt Romney, visiting Manchester, N.H., on Friday, has taken a more substantive… (Elise Amendola, Associated…)
In a campaign dominated by talk of jobs and the economy, the Republican presidential field has settled on a unified approach to foreign policy: Ignore it for the most part, unless forced to discuss. Then criticize President Obama.
Part of that is reflex. As the opposition party, Republicans are inclined to oppose anything the president says or does, even if they applaud the outcome, like, for instance, the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi.
But their silence also reflects the political reality. After a string of successes — the dispatch of Kadafi, the killing of Osama bin Laden, the decapitation of Al Qaeda's leadership — it will be tough, as things stand, to paint Obama as a Democrat who is feckless on defense and foreign affairs, a staple of past Republican presidential campaigns.
So, generally, the GOP candidates have taken their shots when events required a response, issuing a sound bite or news release, then quickly moving on.
"Republicans are focused on the issues they think they can win: job creation, tax reform and the like," said David Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an expert on national security. "Foreign policy is not that central to this election."
That is not to say Obama is invulnerable on the issue. With U.S. troops exiting Iraq by year's end — over the protest of most of the GOP field — any turn for the worse will doubtless be blamed on the president, raising questions about his judgment just as voters begin focusing on their 2012 choice. (The timetable was established by President George W. Bush before he left office.)
Critics also fault the way Obama has dealt with the United States' key Middle East friend, Israel, and America's avowed enemies, including North Korea, Venezuela and, in particular, Iran. A crisis involving any one of those countries could hurt the president at home, especially if the result was an increase in gas prices or another recession that turned troubles overseas into something voters felt in their wallets.
More broadly, it has become a Republican article of faith that Obama is insufficiently committed to America as a great power and leader for other nations to follow. "Exceptionalism" is the word most often used by the candidates, who accuse Obama of repeatedly apologizing for America abroad — even though he hasn't — and deferring too much to U.S. allies, a strategy disdained as "leading from behind."
It seems no coincidence that Mitt Romney, the Republican front-runner, titled his campaign book "No Apology: The Case for American Greatness."
But much of the criticism from the Republican field has been scattershot and has amounted to little more than quibbles on the margin, hailing the elimination of Kadafi, for example, while suggesting that it could have been done better. (Or, in the case of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, having it both ways: calling for U.S. intervention when the Libyan rebellion broke out, then faulting Obama when he did intervene.)
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney has taken the most substantive approach, delivering a lengthy speech on defense and foreign policy this month and circulating a carefully drafted white paper laying out his world view. However, while he took some issue with Obama — promising more defense spending, for example — Romney's overall foreign policy does not radically differ from that of the incumbent; bucking the isolationist wing of the GOP, Romney makes the case for active and robust U.S. engagement abroad.
Within the Republican field there are significant differences, on issues such as Afghanistan (Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. favor a U.S. withdrawal), China (former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum seems to favor a trade war) and Mexico (Texas Gov. Rick Perry has broached the possibility of involving U.S. troops in anti-drug efforts). But even those have been muted, cropping up only briefly during exchanges in a handful of debates.
A more thorough airing of the candidate's views may come next month, at a Nov. 15 debate intended to focus mainly on defense and foreign affairs.
Experts said they would welcome that more substantive discussion, and hoped it spilled over into the general election next year between Obama and whichever Republican he faces, even if voters have demonstrated little interest in foreign policy. (The best evidence of that may be Obama's mediocre approval ratings, which are stuck in the low- to mid-40% range despite his successes abroad.)
"Campaigns are a great opportunity to educate the American public. To engage them in a discussion about the challenges the country faces and the possible responses," said James Lindsay, senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan group. "If you don't have those discussions, you don't prepare the public for the tough choices ahead."
Of course, campaigns are all about promises, which may or may not prove meaningful.
In 1999, then-candidate George W. Bush laid out his foreign policy views in a speech at South Carolina's Citadel, the military academy where Romney recently spoke. Bush criticized the Clinton administration for ill-defined military missions and promised to find political solutions to avoid endless deployments that sapped public support and depleted troop morale.
"We will not be permanent peacekeepers, dividing warring parties," Bush pledged.
More than 10 years later, as U.S. troops prepare to leave Iraq following a highly unpopular war started under Bush, it is clear the winner in 2012 will be driven not so much by campaign promises as the events he or she confronts after taking the oath of office.