Tale of the Tape

As the two heavyweights finally square up, who's got the advantage on the key foreign policy issues of the 2012 campaign?

Then there were two. With Tuesday's announcement by Rick Santorum that he is suspending his presidential campaign, the November election title bout is now set. In the Democratic corner, hailing from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, wearing the blue trunks ... Barack Obama! In the far-right corner, from the great state of Massachusetts, wearing the red trunks ... Mitt Romney!

While the economy will almost certainly be front and center for the next seven rounds (er, months) of campaigning, foreign policy is likely to play an important, even decisive, role. So as the general election campaign kicks off and the two candidates prepare to go mano-a-mano, here are the five issues most likely to shape the foreign policy narrative of the 2012 campaign -- and who's got the advantage thus far.


It's not 2004 anymore, when terrorism and the threat from al Qaeda was front and center in American politics, but that doesn't mean the issue will be off the radar screen in 2012 -- particularly if the Obama camp has anything to say about it. With the killing of Osama bin Laden (an issue that featured prominently in Davis Guggenheim's recently released short film about the Obama presidency) and, even more important, the lack of any serious terrorist incident since Obama took office, this is perhaps the killer foreign policy uppercut for the incumbent.

Indeed, by one measure, it is the single issue on which Obama earns the strongest marks from voters -- 63 percent of Americans approve of the manner in which the president has handled terrorism. For Obama, his effectiveness at "fighting terrorism" is more than just an issue advantage, it's a key validator of his foreign policy performance, his leadership, and his fortitude in keeping America safe (or at least that's how the White House will spin it). His continued ramping up of the drone war only reinforces the message that he's not about to waver in the fight with al Qaeda or its affiliates and while there's certainly criticism to made of the president over his failure to close Guantanamo Bay or his lack of fealty to protecting basic civil liberties -- these are hardly place in which a Republican nominee not named Ron Paul is going to try and jab him. In short, Romney will have few opportunities to lay a glove on Obama on the issue of terrorism; the less he says about it, probably the better.

Advantage: Obama

Ending America's wars:

Generally speaking, a Democrat incumbent who ended one war and wound down another during his presidency might be considered vulnerable to traditional Republican attacks of foreign policy weakness. Not this cycle. Let's face it, Americans don't agree on much these days. If Barack Obama says the sky is blue, a Republican might be inclined to argue "no, in fact it's green ... and blue is a socialist plot." The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are two notable exceptions. By wide margins, Americans are supportive of the U.S. pull out from Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown from Afghanistan -- even a majority of Republicans supported the president on the full withdrawal from Iraq. On Afghanistan, a majority of the country wants the United States to get out now, even before completing its current training mission of the Afghan Army. Another 60 percent now believes the war "was not worth fighting." Amazingly, these data points have not really dented Obama's approval on this issue -- which is just under 50 percent. That the president has escaped such little blame for a policy that is so deeply unpopular  and has been so badly managed, is truly one of the great enigmas of his presidency.

Nonetheless, the drawdown from Iraq and Afghanistan are both sources of support for president's foreign policy performance -- so much so that the Obama campaign has already begun attacking Romney for suggesting that the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq was precipitous and, in his words, "tragic." All of this leaves Romney in the rather unpleasant position of playing defense. If he criticizes the president for too rapidly withdrawing from Afghanistan or -- as he has been prone to do -- hits him for supposedly putting politics ahead of the advice of his generals it will beg the question, "Does Romney want to stay longer in Afghanistan?" That hardly seems like a winning political stance for any candidate this cycle. So on this issue, Obama has not only a nearly impenetrable defense; he's got a few good left hooks in the arsenal.

Advantage: Obama

Foreign policy leadership:

Ever since Jeanne Kirkpatrick spoke to the 1984 Republican Convention and called Democrats "Blame America Firsters," the issue of who is a better steward of the country's global responsibilities has been a prominent feature of GOP campaign politics -- and a winning one at that.

This cycle might be a little different; the very fact that it's actually debatable is a rather large problem for Mitt Romney. Imagine if the Democrats were dragged into a real fight with Republicans as to which party will better protect Social Security. To get a sense of how bad things are on this point, consider this: according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, voters give the president a 17-point edge over Romney in "handling international affairs." That's the biggest advantage Obama has on any one issue, with the exception of "addressing women's issues," a topic that has been in recent weeks a disaster for Republicans. Voters also view Obama as a stronger leader (albeit by a more narrow margin). In short, while Republicans like to compare Obama to past failed Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter he is not.

Of course, none of this has stopped Romney from constantly telling voters that, unlike Barack Obama, he won't go around the world apologizing for America. The fact that this blatantly untrue has hardly been a deterrent -- and Romney likely won't let up on it over the next seven months. Republicans have using the "we love America more"/"we're stronger" card for generations -- and no self-respecting Republican running for the nation's highest office would cast it away so easily. As well they shouldn't. Political stereotypes die hard and Romney's only real hope of taking back some of the foreign policy advantage from Obama is to try to re-activate this toxic perception of Democrats. And it might just work among voters not favorably impressed by the president.

The dilemma for Romney is not only that he is facing a candidate who is more immune to it than maybe any Democrat in recent history, but also that his own lack of foreign policy background makes it an even more difficult case to make. Still, old habits die hard. On this one, you have to give Romney a puncher's chance. Just don't count on him scoring a knockout.

Advantage: Obama (slightly)


There are many foreign policy advantages that come from being an incumbent president, but having a country uniquely disliked by Americans trying to build a nuclear bomb is not one of them. As most foreign policy observers will tell you, preventing Iran from building a nuke is no easy task. It involves difficult diplomacy, presidential signaling, the weighing of military options, potentially difficult compromises, and the management of key allied relations.

Mitt Romney has none of these problems. He can simply lob rhetorical haymakers that hype up the threat of an Iranian bomb or offer Churchillian declarations about his intention to stop such efforts. For example, in an earlier GOP presidential debate, Romney said that with him as president, Iran would not get a bomb -- but that under Obama, the mullahs will join the nuclear club. How exactly this would come to pass given that the two men have almost idenctical policy prescriptions is irrelevant in a dogfight. This is the benefit of being outside the tent.

That there is no easy solution to the problem puts Obama in the difficult position of having to speak in nuance; Romney meanwhile has the luxury of wrapping himself in the flag and speaking in chest-beating generalities (a bit like Rocky's soliloquy at the end of Rocky IV)  As long as ambiguity remains around an Iranian bomb, no matter what progress Obama might make diplomatically, it will give Romney an opening. And from every indication he plans to exploit it.

Advantage: Romney


A newly emerging theme in American politics -- one that began in the 2010 campaign cycle -- is China bashing; and there's a reasonable chance we may see more of it on the presidential level this year. Last fall, during one of the many GOP presidential debates, he claimed that "the Chinese are smiling all the way to the bank, taking our currency and taking our jobs and taking a lot of our future." And in a February Wall Street Journal op-ed, he pledged to end "an economic relationship that rewards China's cheating and penalizes American companies and workers."

Here again is one of the advantages of being a candidate that stands outside the tent. Like Bill Clinton's "Butcher of Beijing" line in 1992, Romney can use crude political attacks against China that Obama simply won't be able to engage in. There is practically zero chance that a sitting president would risk upsetting a strategically important country like China with such over-the-top rhetoric. Romney has no such constraints.

To be sure, it's unclear whether attacking China will really hold much currency for any presidential candidate -- the polling evidence suggests voters would prefer to see the United States build a stronger relationship with China than alienate it. Still, at a time of a rather uncertain and wavering recovery, economic populism always has a certain appeal. And at the very least, threatening to get tough with China is certainly consistent with Romney's overall message that a different president would have helped shepherd a more robust recovery. In the end, Romney has little incentive to tone down the rhetoric. Like Clinton, he can dial it all back if he becomes president. So while brute force bashing may not win the day, it's likely to have more political potency than Obama's tip-toeing about his "Asia pivot."

Advantage: Romney

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Democracy Lab

Needles Into Ploughshares

Want to fight Latin America's drug problem? Try land reform.

Latin America has a lot to be proud of. In recent years many countries of the region have succeeded in embracing democratic institutions and spurring economic growth. Yet many serious challenges remain. Latin America has the highest levels of inequality in the world. It also faces a host of security threats, including Mexico's raging drug war, gang violence and human trafficking in Central America, and the persistence of crime across the region.

Many of these problems are linked to the stubbornly persistent production of drugs in Colombia, fueled by decades of conflict in which various illegal armed groups have seized land for illicit uses and displaced millions of peasants. Leaders from the region are increasingly discussing alternative approaches to the war on drugs and the broad security challenges it has created -- and that's a conversation they are sure to continue when they converge at the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena on April 14-15.

One recent initiative by Colombia is likely to loom large: its path-breaking 2011 Victims Law, which offers reparations, in the form of land, to victims of the country's fifty-year long civil conflict. When President Juan Manuel Santos came to office in 2010, he courageously supported this policy to draw attention to those who have suffered from the war and settle what he called "a historical debt with the peasants." The law includes reparations and land titles for victims of the armed conflict, including those who were displaced from their land. Its proposed scope is unprecedented: an estimated four million victims stand to receive reparations and 350,000 families are eligible to reclaim roughly five million acres of land.

The Victims Law has broad potential ramifications, given that the vague and contested property rights at the heart of Colombia's conflict are hardly unique to that country. Land conflict plagues Brazil's expanding agricultural frontier, the promotion of new settlements in Bolivia and Ecuador near indigenous communities, and the ongoing expropriations and land invasions in Chávez's Venezuela. Peasants in Paraguay and Honduras are pressuring for redistribution and invading large estates with dubious ownership, resulting in threats and violence against activists.

The clear delineation and legalization of property is a first critical step governments can take to address these issues. Legalization helps prevent ownership disputes, and can also help lift farmers out of poverty by providing incentives to plant and invest in property and improving access to credit by creating a source of collateral. But legalization itself is not sufficient. Land ownership for victims of displacement or marginalized rural inhabitants is also an important part of the solution to the structural problems that produce insecurity in the countryside. Indeed, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the largest Colombian insurgent group, which is also involved in drug trafficking, has long staked their reputation on the promise of land reform. (The photo above shows relatives of people kidnapped by FARC at a demonstration in Bogota on April 4.)

Land distribution and titling under the Victims Law offers a way of undercutting the dynamics that give life to insurgent groups. At a speech to the first recipients of land under the new law in January, President Santos declared that the next wave of land reform will "steal the arguments of the insurgents" and eliminate the social grievances that sustain rebel recruitment and popular support.

We share Colombia's optimism over the restitution program but also caution that past experience should serve as a guidepost for the present. Colombia's history with land reform is politically fraught. A large titling program in the 1960s stalled and was implemented broadly only in a few concentrated areas. Later resistance and counter-reforms by large landholders and paramilitary groups who displaced peasants from their land contributed to the current demand for reparations.

Research that we have conducted on how land reform affected insurgent activities at the municipal level from 1960-2000 indicates that in most areas of Colombia land reforms did not temper the insurgency. Instead they had the opposite effect, exacerbating disputes and grievances over plots. Only in a few key zones with massive amounts of titling and continuous state support were land disputes more resolutely settled and support for insurgents depressed. These successful zones only constituted about 5 percent of all of Colombia's municipalities. In other words, stealing the arguments of the insurgents will not be easy.

Colombian leaders are certainly aware that the restitution of land to so many victims will face a variety of technical, bureaucratic, and political obstacles. Even with recent security gains and successful operations against insurgent and criminal groups, threats to the land program are no secret. Several prominent land advocates have already been murdered by counter-reform criminal bands and large landholders.

Latin America's progress will be deservedly trumpeted at the summit. Yet key challenges remain in confronting a steep legacy of conflict, inequality, and entrenched elite interests. With the Victims Law, Colombia is striving to set an example of a path forward. A successful land policy has the potential to give common citizens a leg up and improve security in Colombians' daily lives. It may also have positive repercussions throughout the region both as a model of good governance and because it holds the promise of uprooting the drug problems that sow discord throughout the region. With so much at stake for the region and with billions of dollars of U.S. aid invested in Colombia, we hope that President Obama and his Latin American counterparts will provide strong support for Colombia's reform efforts.