The Republican primaries are effectively over, and gone with them is the sharp-edged rhetoric and departures from past U.S. policy on the Middle East.
Gone is Rick Santorum’s pledge to strike Iran and his suggestion that West Bank Palestinians should be referred to as Israelis. Gone is Newt Gingrich’s suggestion that the United States is engaged in a “long struggle with radical Islamists” and reference to the Palestinians as an “invented” people.
Instead we are left with Mitt Romney, the candidate who has tended to be relatively cautious in his foreign policy pronouncements, emphasized the importance of America’s international alliances and drawn his foreign policy advisers from past Republican administrations.
Supporters say his hands-on, problem-solving approach would clear away the hesitancy and lack of resolve that they say has marked Barack Obama’s presidency.
Noam Neusner, a George W. Bush administration policy adviser who helped shape Romney’s foreign policy during his 2007-08 run for the GOP nomination, said Romney was more assertive than Obama and less inclined to rely on rhetoric as a diplomatic tool.
The candidates have had their policy differences. Romney had called for comprehensive sanctions targeting Iran’s economy months before Obama said he was ready to embrace them late last year. And Romney blasted Obama’s call for Israel and the Palestinians to use the 1967 lines as the basis for their negotiations, saying the president had “thrown Israel under the bus.”
But on their overall goals there is common ground. Both Romney and Obama are publicly committed to preventing Iran from going nuclear, using pressure and diplomacy while emphasizing that a military strike as a last resort is definitely an option. Both favor a return to Israeli-Palestinian talks without preconditions, and adamantly oppose Palestinian efforts to obtain statehood recognition without the talks.
That has left the opposing sides to define their foreign policy differences along lines of personality and governing style. Romney’s backers describe a can-do, successful businessman who revels in solving problems. Obama’s team depicts a leader who has restored the American credibility they say was eroded by George W. Bush.
Romney has portrayed Obama as a sellout and as weakly deferring to lesser powers. Most recently, referring to a failed North Korean rocket launch, Romney’s campaign accused Obama of trying to “appease” that country through food aid and of “undermining” U.S. security.
Some, however, think that Romney’s criticism is more about campaign rhetoric than genuine differences in policy approaches.
“What drives Romney’s rhetoric right now is the basic reality that the president is not vulnerable on foreign policy, the American public is not interested, so he has not found a sure footing, so he tries to draw contrived or hyperbolic differences,” said Aaron David Miller, a negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations who also has been critical of Obama’s approach to the Middle East.
Miller, now a scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, said he didn’t expect to see much of a lurch in policy from Romney.
“He’s articulating policies he wouldn’t follow,” Miller said, noting the preponderance of centrist Republicans among Romney’s foreign policy advisers. “He inherits the same options and limited American choices” that every president does.
Romney, while hitting hard at Obama throughout the primaries, also sought to distinguish himself from the more aggressive rhetoric of his Republican rivals. He would not be drawn into mimicking a pledge by Santorum to strike Iran, and chided Gingrich for saying that the Palestinians were an invented people. He also has told Jewish leaders that he would not pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
Instead, at least when it comes to the Middle East, the Romney team has mounted a campaign that implicitly acknowledges that he and Obama share similar policies — but that Romney came about them honestly, while Obama did so reluctantly.
A Romney campaign sheet distributed last month after Obama addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee set up a narrative in which Obama instituted hard-hitting sanctions, but only after being led to this approach by Congress and by Europe.
“The Obama administration lagged behind the United Kingdom, Canada and France in calling for and imposing sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank,” it said. “The United Kingdom and Canada imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank and other financial institutions in late November 2011, and France also urged such sanctions. On the same day, the United States declined to impose such sanctions.”
Obama’s supporters have touted his work in pressing the U.N. Security Council to pass the resolution in 2010 that created the framework for such sanctions. The administration worked with Congress to time the sanctions so they would not harm world oil markets. It instituted the bank sanctions last month.
Romney’s critics say that Obama’s deliberate approach has paid off and that the Republican nominee-apparent had yet to articulate clear alternatives.
On Iran, Romney would not be as patient with Tehran as Obama, Neusner said. “Mitt Romney would be less likely to take the time Obama has,” he said.