Voice

Barack O'Romney

Ignore what the candidates say they'll do differently on foreign policy. They're basically the same man.

If Barack Obama is reelected, he ought to consider making Mitt Romney his new secretary of state. I propose this far-fetched howler not because I'm trying to get into my own Dumb Idea Hall of Fame, or because white-male secretaries of state seem to be going the way of the dodo at Foggy Bottom (we haven't had one since Warren Christopher departed in 1997), or because I believe deeply in bipartisanship. (Although I do; it's been a long time since we've had a secretary of state who was from the opposing party, and it would be great idea.)

I raise the idea to drive home a broader point. Despite his campaign rhetoric, Romney would be quite comfortable carrying out President Obama's foreign policy because it accords so closely with his own.

And that brings up an extraordinary fact. What has emerged in the second decade after 9/11 is a remarkable consensus among Democrats and Republicans on a core approach to the nation's foreign policy. It's certainly not a perfect alignment. But rarely since the end of the Cold War has there been this level of consensus. Indeed, while Americans may be divided, polarized and dysfunctional about issues closer to home, we are really quite united in how we see the world and what we should do about it.

Ever wondered why foreign policy hasn't figured all that prominently in the 2012 election campaign? Sure, the country is focused on the economy and domestic priorities. And yes, Obama has so far avoided the kind of foreign-policy disasters that would give the Republicans easy free shots. But there's more to it than that: Romney has had a hard time identifying Obama's foreign-policy vulnerabilities because there's just not that much difference between the two.

A post 9/11 consensus is emerging that has bridged the ideological divide of the Bush 43 years. And it's going to be pretty durable.

Paradoxically, both George W. Bush's successes and failures helped to create this new consensus. His tough and largely successful approach to counterterrorism -- specifically, keeping the homeland safe and keeping al Qaeda and its affiliates at bay through use of special forces, drone attacks, aggressive use of intelligence, and more effective cooperation among agencies now forms a virtually unassailable bipartisan consensus. As shown through his stepped-up drone campaign, Barack Obama has become George W. Bush on steroids.

And Bush 43's failed policies -- a discretionary war in Iraq and a mismanaged one in Afghanistan -- have had an equally profound effect. These adventures created a counter-reaction against ill-advised military campaigns that is now bipartisan theology as well.

To be sure, there are some differences between Romney and Obama. But with the exception of Republicans taking a softer line on Israel and a tougher one on Russia -- both stances that are unlikely to matter much in terms of actual policy implementation -- there's a much greater convergence.

Yes, in the interests of winning votes, Romney will hone a few choice attacks in the campaign to come: "The president is weak and an apologizer, I'm not!" "The president doesn't believe in American leadership, I do!" These tropes, however, are either meaningless or inaccurate, and aren't likely to resonate much with a foreign policy-fatigued public.

Four key principles drive the new post, post-9/11 consensus:

1. Fix Our Broken House: These days, any sentient politician understands that the key to American power abroad is inextricably linked to the state of our union here at home. Whether or not our leaders are prepared to pay the political price to address these domestic problems is another matter. But the talking points seem pretty similar: Build our nation first, not anyone else's. Watch what you're spending abroad, and focus on the five deadly Ds at home -- debt, deficit, dysfunctional politics, decaying infrastructure, and dependence on Middle East hydrocarbons.

Whether it's a Democratic or Republican president, domestic priorities have set the tone for a retrenchment in America's global footprint for years to come. When it comes to risky foreign-policy initiatives, expect politicians to take a long look in the rear-view mirror first.

2. But Defend It

: The second core consensus is the need to kill the bad guys abroad before they can kill us, but to do it without invading nations and thus becoming responsible for rebuilding them. Bush 43, for all his other foreign-policy failures, can boast that there were no attacks on the continental United States after 9/11, and Obama -- despite a few near misses -- has maintained the record.

Romney would try just as hard. In this environment, no U.S. president -- if presented with reliable and actionable intel -- would have declined to order a hit on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan or anywhere else. Indeed, the president should be careful about getting into a game of "my predator drone is bigger than yours" with Romney. Fighting terrorists is now a truly bipartisan effort.

3. End Wars, Don't Begin Them: Sadly, the dominant question of America's 21st century conflicts so far is not "can we win?" but "when can we leave?" That was the central question that has occupied Obama's decision-making in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And no matter who becomes president in 2012, there's not going to be much enthusiasm for further adventures abroad or trillion-dollar experiments in nation-building. Democrats and Republicans may finally have broken the code: Discretionary wars and interventions require higher standards for success because, well, they're wars of choice. And our leaders need to be cruel and unforgiving about deciding not only how and when to wage them, but also how to get in and out of them if they do.

The new caution is a bipartisan one. President Romney would have steered clear of unilateral intervention in Libya, and been as cautious as Obama (rightly) has been on Syria. (Iran is a special case, which I will address below.)

4. Subcontract, Create a Committee and a Process Whenever Possible: Whoever came up with the term "leading from behind" erred only in the packaging. Wrong choice of words; right idea. America can't save the world by itself, nor should we expect to or be expected to by others. Let's be clear. We can always lead from the front -- into disaster (see: Afghanistan, Iraq) -- and who wants that?

Instead, the greater challenge is how to decide when and how to intervene successfully in a way that's congruent with our interests and resources. Multilateralism and process became dirty words during the George W. Bush years. And, hey, they're not heroic measures. Indeed, they're time-consuming and often messy because they depend on others. But they can be useful, particularly when vital and core American national interests aren't involved. Think Libya, a moderately successful policy run by committee -- or even a messier situation like Syria, where there are no good options, and acting (or not) with others can fill a vacuum until an opportunity for more concerted action presents itself.

It's not only on these core assumptions that the candidates share a broad agreement. These principles translate into specific policies where it would be tough to tell the difference between a Romney and an Obama presidency:

Iran: Sorry, I just don't see any significant difference between the way Obama is handling Iran's nuclear program and the way Romney might as president. And that's because there's seems to be an inexorable arc to the Iranian nuclear problem. If by 2013 sanctions and negotiations don't produce a sustainable deal and Iran continues its quest for a nuclear weapon, one of two things is going to happen: Israel is likely to strike, or we will.

If it's the former, both Obama and Romney would be there to defend the Israelis and manage the mess that would follow. Both would be prepared to intercede on Israel's behalf if and when it came to that. As for a U.S. strike, it's becoming a bipartisan article of faith that the United States will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. And both men are prepared to use military strikes against Iran's nuclear sites as a last resort, even if it only means a delay (and that's what it would mean) in Iran's quest for nukes.

Freedom Agenda: The bloom went off this rose in George W. Bush's administration. The Arab Spring has turned into a long cold winter -- the prospects for the quick and easy rise of democracies in the Middle East are slim to none. A Romney administration might produce a tougher tone in defense of freedom (without any meaningful action) and perhaps more negative rhetoric about Islamists, but would also confront the same bad options and limited leverage Obama has now. On Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and anywhere else the United States is unable to direct the domestic politics in distant lands, Romney would likely adopt much the same approach as the current administration.

Diplomatic Engagement: Had you listened to Obama in 2009, you might very well have concluded that he was out to change the world through engagement and diplomacy. But that was then. Obama has learned quite a bit, and appears to have come much closer to the tougher-minded Romney view on the merits of engaging Hugo Chávez, the Kim regime in North Korea, the mullahs in Tehran, and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Conspicuously absent from this list of leaders that Obama has seemingly written off is Vladimir Putin, who appears to be an integral part of the White House's Iran strategy.

Romney has taken a much tougher line on Russia and China. Still, the realities of governing would invariably soften the Romney campaign line that Russia is public enemy No. 1 and that China is a currency manipulator.

Israel: Paradoxically, the one issue where Romney and Obama might actually differ is on the most bipartisan one of all -- Israel. Romney's views on Israel are guided more by his gut instincts (see Bush 43) than Obama, whose view of the Israelis is colder and more calculating.

The issue isn't support for Israel's security -- both would be committed to that. It's that damn peace process, which keeps turning up like a bad penny. Obama wants progress, and sees Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as largely responsible for the lack of it. He may want to push  some bold initiative in a second term, but it won't be so easy to do. For Romney, the peace process isn't going to be a priority unless the Israelis and Palestinians -- through violence or diplomacy -- make it one.

The bottom line? The new consensus is that the world's a more challenging place than ever, and both Democrats and Republicans are learning that we can't control it. (Of course, we never did.) That doesn't mean that the United States cannot lead or succeed in protecting its interests, it just means its leaders need to be more disciplined about how and when to project American power.

The new divide on foreign policy is clear -- and I, for one, am ecstatic about it. It's not between left and right, liberal or conservative, or Republican or Democrat. It's between making decisions that are smart, on the one hand, or dumb on the other. And I'm hoping that the next president -- whoever he is -- knows exactly which side America wants to be on.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Reality Check

Israel's Image Revisited

What's driving Israel's very bad PR? 

Writing in the Wall Street Journal this week on the occasion of Israeli Independence Day, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren penned a powerful op-ed on the erosion of Israel's image.

His conclusion: Israel's image has deteriorated in large part because of a "systematic delegitimization of the Jewish state."

"Having failed to destroy Israel by conventional arms and terrorism," he writes, "Israel's enemies alit on a subtler and more sinister tactic that hampers Israel's ability to defend itself, even to justify its existence."

First, some full disclosure. I like and respect Michael Oren. He's a remarkably talented historian, astute analyst, and able diplomat.

I also have no doubt that there are efforts to delegitimize Israel, that anti-Semitism pervades some of the anti-Israel rhetoric, that Israel is one of the few countries in the world that's judged by impossibly high standards, and that the perception and reality of its power causes many to ignore the realities of its vulnerability.

But I just don't buy the argument that Israel's image has eroded principally because of a dedicated campaign to delegitimize it.

Three other factors drive Israel's very bad PR: the realities of nation-building, the image of the asymmetry of power, and Israel's own actions, which, like those of so many other countries, value short-term tactics over long-term strategy.

City on a Hill?

If Israel was created to be a paragon of virtue and a "light unto the nations" -- the proverbial city on the hill -- it picked the wrong hill.

Whatever the Zionist ideologues who founded Israel may have intended, the creation of the state of Israel and the realities of nation-building quickly became a quest for normalcy in highly unusual and abnormal circumstances.

Unlike the United States, which had non-predatory neighbors to its north and south and fish to its east and west, Israelis perceived themselves to have had no security space and little margin for error, let alone the quiet miracle of a normal life. Born in war, Israel has remained in an active conflict zone ever since. That it has succeeded in creating as much normalcy as it did is a remarkable testament to its leaders and the capacities, strength, and will of its people.

But along with that normalcy came the normal aging process of a small state built on socialist and Zionist values turning into a modern industrialized nation focused on material advancement and modern comforts. Israel's idealized image of itself -- the one idealized by its founders and much of the American Jewish community -- could only change for the worse.

For Israel, part of being normal has also meant acting like a normal state, with all of the contradictions, political expediency, hypocrisies, and self-justifying policies that such normalcy entails in a world that is still ruled by power and self-interest. Israel's loyal ally, the United States, operates in that world too.

Why would anyone believe that Israeli behavior would be any different? Are the Israelis more ethical, democratic, and moral than we are? Israel's image has eroded because it lives in the real world as a flawed and imperfect nation. And frankly, though it's only 60-plus years old, its abuses and flaws have yet to rival any of the European colonial powers, let alone the Russians or the Chinese.

Big and Small

The erosion of Israel's image is also inextricably linked to its emergence as a regional power with a vibrant economy, a dynamic high-tech sector, and a powerful military. The images in Leon Uris's classic book Exodus and the Hollywood movie version with Paul Newman leading a ragtag Israeli militia against a sea of hostile Arabs have now been reversed. David has become Goliath.

In the eyes of the world, Israel has shed its image of a small state struggling against impossible odds. Israel now has "security needs" and "requirements" rather than existential fears; its power obligates it to be more magnanimous and forthcoming on peace issues; its strength should produce restraint, not excess.

Indeed much of the erosion of Israel's image is driven by the realities and perceptions of an asymmetry of power that now pits the nation with a per capita GDP of $31,000, 100 companies on the NYSE, and nukes in triple digits against a weak Palestinian quasi-state and an Arab world that's dysfunctional and imploding.

There's much truth in this image of Israeli might, and anyone who denies that capacity trivializes what the Israelis have accomplished and does them a grave disservice by portraying them as victims.

But there's also truth in Israel's vulnerabilities, too. But the asymmetry of power doesn't work in Israel's favor here, either. Remember the summer of 2006, when 5,000 Hezbollah fighters equipped with rudimentary rockets shut down the northern half of the region's strongest military power for 33 days? The day before the war ended, Hezbollah fired more rockets than on any previous day. Nuclear weapons and overwhelming force don't add up to much if they can't be used and don't deter.

Israeli Actions

Finally, Israel's eroding image flows from its own actions and behavior. These seem to fall into three categories.

The first are those actions that are legitimate expressions of Israel's real security needs, but for which Israel is roundly and unfairly criticized (the 1981 attack on the Iraqi reactor; the 2007 preemptive strike on the fledging Syrian one).

Second are those policies that not only make little sense morally or strategically but are deemed to be ideological and undercut other Israeli goals, such as peace with the neighbors (see: settlements).

Third are those that are dumb, arbitrary, or disproportionate in terms of loss of life (see: Ehud Olmert's massive invasion of Lebanon in 2006, as well as many of Israel's occupation policies that humiliate Palestinians, including collective punishment, housing demolitions, and so on). And many of these derive from the reality that small powers, particularly those with 32 different governments in 60-plus years, don't have long-range policies and strategies. Instead, they maneuver, react, and preempt to buy time and space.

The notion that Israel's unfavorable image is a result of some evil cabal that plots daily against it infantilizes the Israelis and takes them out of history as real-world actors who sometimes do well in pursuit of their interests and at other times screw up badly. Israel is a remarkable state that has sought to preserve its moral and ethical soul in a cruel and unforgiving world. But it is still only a nation of mortals trying to survive in that world.

Israeli founding father David Ben Gurion reflected the mood and mindset perfectly: It doesn't matter what the goyim say; what matters is what the Jews do. For better and almost certainly worse, Israel will be judged accordingly.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images