Looking ahead to the biggest foreign-policy debates of the general election.
Don't believe the primary hype. In all likelihood, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will exit New Hampshire with a head of steam, then go on to roll over his rivals in South Carolina and Florida, and have the Republican presidential nomination wrapped up by the end of January.
With his coronation now looking fairly ensured, Romney can now shift to the more challenging task of preparing for a general election against incumbent Barack Obama. While the U.S. president is probably most vulnerable to attacks on his handling of the economy, foreign policy is sure to come up as well. But the Obama entering this race is a very different national security candidate from the man who ran against John McCain in 2008. Here are five key areas where Romney is likely to go after the president.
The Islamic Republic, an implacable foe of the United States for three decades, seems guaranteed to be the biggest foreign-policy issue of the election. Romney has made his pitch in very stark terms. "If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon.… If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."
In his erratic Iowa victory speech, Romney began not with the struggling U.S. economy, but with Iran: "Iran is about to have nuclear weaponry just down the road here, and this president, what's he done in that regard? He said he'd have a policy of engagement. How's that worked out?"
The president has defended his Iran policies, saying the administration has "imposed the toughest sanctions on Iran ever" and that as a result of U.S.-led efforts, "today Iran is isolated and the world is unified."
What shape this debate takes in the coming months will likely be determined by events in the Middle East. Iranian moves like the recent beginning of enrichment at a facility in Qom and Tehran's aggressive rhetoric over the Strait of Hormuz will give Romney fodder to say that Obama's policies on Iran have failed, while the administration will dismiss them as desperate bluster from an increasingly isolated regime.
Russia hasn't been much of an issue in the Republican primary, but with Romney as the presumptive nominee, expect it to re-emerge. Romney has described New START, the treaty under which Russia and the United States have agreed to reduce their nuclear stockpiles, as Obama's "worst foreign-policy mistake." He thinks that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is "rebuilding the Russian empire" and that "letting people into WTO who intend to cheat is obviously a mistake." In his official foreign-policy white paper, he promises to "reset President Obama's 'Reset' with Russia," "[f]orthrightly confront the Russian government over its authoritarian practices," and enhance diplomatic and military cooperation with countries in Russia's so-called near abroad.
In March, Putin will almost certainly be returned to Russia's presidency in an election likely to be marred by reports of irregularity and fraud -- a development that will not reflect well on the "reset policy," one of the Obama administration's signature foreign-policy initiatives. The criticism of the president's overtures to Moscow fits in with a larger Republican critique of Obama's abandoning U.S. allies, such as former Soviet satellite Georgia, in the name of engagement with rivals.
Romney argues that Obama has been far too critical in his public disagreements with the Israeli government. "If we disagree with [Israel], like this president has time and time again, we don't do it in public like he's done it; we do it in private," he said during one debate. According to Romney, the president "threw Israel under the bus" because he "thought that if he drew closer to the Palestinians that would somehow encourage the peace process." Romney has also accused Obama of criticizing Israel to curry favor with European countries.
While most of the argument focuses on tone, expect to hear plenty of rhetoric from the Romney camp about Obama's suggestion in his May 2011 Middle East speech that Israel return to its "1967 lines," with agreed territorial swaps. (Obama says he was only suggesting those borders as a starting point for discussion.)
There is evidence that Obama's support among Jewish voters has been slipping, and the recent Republican victory in the race to fill resigned congressman Anthony Weiner's seat, during which Israel was a major issue, may give Republicans hope that they can further chip away at this traditionally Democratic voting bloc. Obama has come out swinging in response, pointing to stepped-up military-to-military ties and telling a forum of Jewish voters, "It's hard to remember a time when the [U.S.] administration gave more support to the security of Israel."
4. IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
If violence continues to worsen in Iraq, expect to hear mounting Republican criticism of Obama's failure to keep troops in the country. Obama's former opponent and now Romney surrogate, Sen. John McCain, recently defined this line of attack, saying, Iraq is "unraveling because we did not keep residual forces there because the president of the United States pledged to get out of Iraq."
Romney himself has said that "by not putting in place a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi leadership, [Obama] has pulled our troops out in a precipitous way, and we should have left 10-, 20-, 30-thousand personnel there to help transition to the Iraqis' own military capabilities." Romney may be somewhat cautious about going hard after Obama on Iraq, however, as it's one of a number of issues on which he has shifted positions over the years.
Romney has also criticized the president for overruling his military advisors in announcing a withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan, though Romney is hardly enthusiastic about the war, saying, "One lesson we've learned in Afghanistan is that Americans cannot fight another nation's war of independence."
The White House has touted the Iraq withdrawal as a "promise kept" -- never mind that it was carried out on basically the same timetable agreed to by Obama's predecessor and only after he failed to persuade the Iraqis to grant legal immunity to U.S. troops. The president also claims the United States is in the process of withdrawing all combat troops from Afghanistan.
Neither war is exactly popular among voters these days.
5. AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM
The candidate who titled his book No Apology: The Case for American Greatness is likely to make patriotism and American exceptionalism a centerpiece of his campaign. "I will not and I will never apologize for America. I don't apologize for America, because I believe in America," Romney has said. He has also charged that the president's foreign policy sees America as "just another nation with a flag" and ridiculed the administration's "Asia pivot," saying, "Obama seems to think that we're going to have a global century, an Asian century. I believe we have to have an American century, where America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world."
The Obama administration has been adamant in rejecting the "apology-tour" charge, with foreign-policy advisor Ben Rhodes telling the New York Times, "Barack Obama has never apologized." The president has, undoubtedly, acknowledged past U.S. mistakes, particularly those of his predecessor, but this is a line of attack that could easily backfire if Republicans appear to be questioning the president's patriotism. All the same, the president's likely to keep his flag pin on for the next few of months.
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