A Sheep in Wolf's Clothing

Mitt Romney certainly talks tough on Iran, European socialism, and Obama's abandonment of Israel. But would his foreign policy really be any different?

It's a bit too early to say that Mitt Romney has wrapped up the Republican nomination for president -- but after Tuesday night's decisive win in the New Hampshire primary and recent polling that suggests Romney leads in the upcoming South Carolina and Florida primaries a trend is becoming visible.

So with that in mind, what might an Obama vs. Romney match-up look like on foreign policy? Yesterday, my Foreign Policy colleague Josh Keating laid out the key areas where Romney will likely attack the president, but just how significant are the policy differences between the two men?

To listen to Romney is to believe they are vast. In his only major foreign policy speech of the campaign at the Citadel in South Carolina, Romney offered a stark disparity between what a foreign policy under President Romney would look like as opposed to that of President Obama, "I will not surrender America's role in the world. This is very simple: If you do not want America to be the strongest nation on Earth, I am not your president. You have that president today."

This is the crux of Romney's attacks on Obama's foreign-policy performance: He is weak, he is feckless, he doesn't quite love America enough, he doesn't believe the United States is an exceptional country, and so on. This represents a familiar pattern of attacks against Democrats dating back decades. But if one digs a little bit deeper, things are more opaque. Romney loves to attack the president for alleged weakness and lack of seriousness on basically every foreign policy issue -- but when it comes to offering policy solutions markedly different from the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Romney has little to offer other than tough talk.

For example, in his Citadel speech Romney laid out four principles that would guide his foreign policy decision-making. According to Romney, they are:

"American foreign policy must be prosecuted with clarity and resolve."

"America must promote open markets, representative government, and respect for human rights."

"The United States will apply the full spectrum of hard and soft power to influence events before they erupt into conflict."

"The United States will exercise leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances."

In an interview yesterday with FP's Josh Rogin, Romney's top national security surrogate, former Missouri Senator Jim Talent, said his candidate's four foreign policy priorities are preventing "Iran from getting a nuclear weapon ... channeling China in a direction of peaceful competition rather than aggression ... reestablish[ing] the strength of traditional allies, and play[ing] a larger leadership role in the international community."

In principle, at least, it's very difficult to see how these priorities are in any way different from those underpinning Obama's foreign policy. Notwithstanding Romney's exceptionalist rhetoric and constant complaints that Obama regularly apologizes for America, in broad strokes the two men view the world and American power basically along the same lines. If there are any identifiable differences between the two candidates it is in their political bluster -- and this has the potential to be far more consequential than actual policy alternatives.

For example, Romney has criticized the president for choosing to withdraw troops from Afghanistan based allegedly on "electoral expediency," but has not indicated any willingness to keep troops in the country past 2014 and has called for speeding up the handover of security responsibility to the Afghan government -- which is precisely Obama's position on the war. Yet, at the same time he has said "[W]e do not negotiate with terrorists. The Taliban are terrorists, they are our enemy" -- a position that might score points on the campaign trail but could very easily limit his options as president in ending the war in Afghanistan.

How about Israel, which Romney has accused the White House of throwing under a bus -- surely here the two candidates have sharply identified differences here? Not really. If anything, Romney rhetorically is more supportive of Israel (though not by much) but except for a pledge to reduce funding to the Palestinian Authority in retaliation for a unilateral declaration of statehood there does not seem to be much identifiable policy difference. But again, now that Romney has said no pressure against Israel is acceptable, what options does that give him as president for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Even on China, which Romney has strongly attacked on the campaign trail for its economic policies, the candidate's bark is again bigger than his bite. Consider his Washington Post op-ed from this fall, where he repeatedly castigated the Obama administration for failing to more aggressively challenge Chinese economic policies that he claimed harmed the United States. Romney's alternative? A host of unilateral measures to increase "enforcement of U.S. trade laws," place "countervailing duties against [Chinese] currency manipulation," "punitive measures" targeting Chinese products and industries that benefit from Beijing's allegedly protectionist policies, and multilateral efforts to "block technology transfers into China."

According to Devin Stewart, a China expert and senior fellow at the Carnegie Council, "Romney's plan differs very little from what Obama is already doing. This is the trade equivalent of the generic, ‘I will defend the U.S. national interest.' He is supporting rule of law, intellectual property, and free trade -- just as Obama has."

That may be, but when it comes to campaign rhetoric, Romney has also accused China of systematic exploitation, stealing intellectual property, cyber-hacking, and currency manipulation -- among other indignities. Even if he is not actually suggesting a policy that markedly different in scope from Obama's, will he be able to act as though it is simply business as usual with China's leaders if he finds himself sitting in sitting in the Oval Office or will he be at risk of fraying relations with Beijing?

Finally, on Iran's nuclear program, Romney's policy of "crippling sanctions," covert operations, keeping all options on the table, and working with allies in the region to isolate Iran is remarkably similar to Obama's.

But here again, Romney's rhetoric might get him in trouble: It's not enough for him to say that he will do more to challenge Iran's nuclear aspirations -- he has effectively promised action by declaring that if he is elected president, Iran "will not have a nuclear weapon."

It isn't just potential rivals that get a tongue lashing from Romney. Last night, in his victory speech in New Hampshire he -- not once, not twice, but three times -- castigated "European" economic policies and it's "entitlement society" which he claims directly influence Obama's "failed" economic policies (that first trip to Berlin or Paris of the Romney presidency might be a tad awkward). It's a bit ironic, however, that a candidate who regularly lambastes the president for allegedly undermining Israel, a key U.S. ally, has no problem attacking the country's key political and economic allies in Europe.

All this tough talk can create serious political problems if Romney is elected president -- he's locked himself into a potentially intractable position on Iranian nukes; he risks estranging economic partners in China; and he'll have some serious repair work ahead with not just European allies, but also Russia -- another country that he has taken to task on the campaign trail.

Indeed, the greatest distinction between the two candidates has little to do with actual differences of opinion on policy. Rather, the 2012 election is shaping up to be a race between a candidate who speaks in more measured tones (a responsibility that tends to come with being president but also one that he evinced on the campaign trail in 2008) while the other talks a big game. While this may suggest a stylistic rather than substantive gap between Obama and Romney, it could lead to two very different foreign policy approaches come January 2013.



A League of Their Own

The Arab League may not be perfect, but it's come a long way.

With observers on the ground in Syria to monitor whether President Bashar al-Assad's regime will end its crackdown, the Arab League is leading the international response to the simmering violence. That doesn't mean it's all gone smoothly. Arab League observers have been attacked and have been accompanied by regime security forces, preventing them from independently engaging with demonstrators. They've also been criticized by the Syrian opposition for having too few members and for a perceived lack of independence. While these latter criticisms are legitimate, let us not forget how far this regional body has come in the past year: The Arab Awakenings brought forth unprecedented reactions by the Arab League to the uprisings in Syria and Libya. This can create an opportunity to strengthen the organization and bolster its ability to play a positive role in the region. However, this is still a potential not completely met. The League must demonstrate it can shed its image of feebleness and prove it can play a meaningful role in Arab affairs, given the new realities of the region.

So, even with all the criticisms, it is still fair to ask whether we are witnessing a new, more forceful Arab League? Traditionally, the organization has been extremely weak -- more by design than anything else. When the Arab League was founded in 1945, Arab states did not want it to infringe on their own sovereignty, and therefore insisted that the overwhelming bulk of its decisions had to be taken by unanimity.

Time and again, this has meant the Arab League was toothless in the face of adversity and unable to take any major political or economic decisions. Its contribution to the Arab world's development has been negligible. If you compare the Arab League to the European Union, the latter has evolved considerably more -- despite the fact that the European Economic Community, from which the EU evolved, was founded a decade later after the Arab League.

The Arab Awakening might change everything.

While the Arab League has very rarely taken decisions against member states, there has been a noticeable change in its pace and resolve in 2011. Approving the involvement of NATO forces in Libya was a major step -- without that decision, Muammar al-Qaddafi could very well still be in power today, with many more thousands killed. Furthermore, imposing sanctions on the Syrian regime for its killing of its people was the first time the Arab League has taken such actions against a member state.

If the Arab League had not moved on Syria, Assad could still claim legitimacy in the Arab world that he clearly doesn't enjoy today.

In today's globalized age, the international community is no longer staying silent when governments turn against their own people. The Arab League quickly realized that it could not just turn a deaf ear to what was happening, as it has in the past.

There are questions of whether the Arab League's newfound tenacity is due to the influence of some of its major players -- Saudi Arabia on Syria and Qatar on Libya -- or whether its newly found proactiveness is an indication of a willingness by member states to allow the League to play a more meaningful role in Arab affairs. Nevertheless, despite its feeble structure and history of weakness, the organization took action. This shows that the Arab League can be reformed to enhance its role in the development of the new Arab world.

Such reforms have been attempted in the past, but have always been stymied by a stubbornly persistent Arab system that did not want to depart from the status quo or cede sovereignty to the Arab League, or anyone else. This is now changing.

Politically, the Arab League can help set rules for governance that would enshrine the principles of pluralism, protection of personal rights, peaceful rotation of power, and tolerance toward all political forces -- as long as they subscribe to these notions.

Fears are high that Islamists will benefit from a system of "one man, one vote, one time" -- using democracy to come to power and subsequently denying others their democratic rights. But the current period is also a time when the political elites are still fighting change and using Islamists as a scare tactic. The Arab League can help set the rules of the game for all countries, and can help them learn from positive experiences in countries like Tunisia. And as the uprisings have presented severe economic challenges for countries in transition, the Arab League can help the region better integrate through trade, labor, and capital movement.

The Arab League should be seen as part of the solution instead of part of the problem by powerful countries that previously resisted change. Saudi Arabia, for instance, has had real concerns about where the transitions might lead. The Arab League can help assuage these fears by making the processes smoother and more peaceful.

The member countries should be driving this change. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby came out of the post-Hosni Mubarak system in Egypt, and is well placed to drive these much-needed reforms.

But crisis shouldn't be the only call to action. The golden chance for reform needs to be acted on by putting proposals on the table. This is not only to cultivate the Arab League's capability to interfere against member states when killing takes place, but also to help push forward the evolution toward an economically integrated and politically diverse region.

For a long time, the Arab League was considered ineffective, and therefore shunned by the international community. Global leaders thought that there was no use in talking to the organization. This is an opportunity to change all that. The international community could not have moved on Libya without the Arab League, and it can't move today on Syria without it. Countries outside the region are still looking to the Arab League to do what they can't. If the Arab League does not act forcefully, it will have to face the unpleasant reality that it failed and pass the torch to the international community again.

Libya and Syria are showing that there are limits to what the international community can do without an Arab consensus. It's time to build a new Arab League that has teeth, and can take advantage of the Arab Awakening.