You don’t have to be a foreign policy expert to have noticed that issues of war and peace have played a very small part in this year’s election. The nation’s main worry as well as the chief point of contention between the two major parties is the economy, and it is no accident that the main item on the resume of the man Republicans are choosing to try to defeat President Obama is his business expertise. But according to the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Aaron David Miller, the lack of foreign policy talk is not just the result of Americans being distracted by their financial woes. As he writes in an article in Foreign Policy, there is a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that has minimized the differences between Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the policies Romney would pursue abroad are likely to be almost identical to those of Obama leaving him to joke that if the president is re-elected he could safely appoint the Republican as his secretary of state.
Miller, who has been saying and writing a lot of very smart things since he quit the State Department and stopped trying to conjure up mythical progress toward Middle East peace, concedes there are differences between Romney and Obama on Israel, Russia and to a lesser extent China. But he thinks these have more to do with nuance than substance or will be ameliorated if the Republican is actually elected. However, I think he is underestimating the implications of those nuances. Even more important, his belief in the president’s willingness to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program and/or to back an Israeli strike seems more a leap of faith than something grounded in evidence. Considering that these issues are likely to be among the trickiest America faces in the next four years, the notion that there is no choice this year on foreign policy must be considered a gross exaggeration.
Miller isn’t entirely wrong in speaking of the common ground that now exists on a lot of issues. Though he campaigned as a critic of George W. Bush’s war on terror, President Obama has kept those policies in place, something only his critics on the far left speak much about. The failure of his early attempts at engagement with countries like Iran has also sobered up the president to some extent. And there’s no denying that neither side of the political aisle has much interest in the idea of new foreign adventures or, it must be admitted, keeping faith in those conflicts in which we are already embroiled.
But that said, there is still a world of difference between the two men in their views of some of the most important challenges facing the country. Obama has been hopelessly naive about Vladimir Putin’s Russia and its desire to rekindle the old superpower rivalry. His reset has been a joke, and no one has laughed harder than the Russians. If elected, Romney will come into office already understanding the grave danger that the successor regime to the old evil empire poses to the stability of the West. Romney also will take a far more aggressive policy toward China. There should be no kowtowing to Beijing on its currency manipulations or its human rights abuses.
Miller is right that the president could not totally abandon Israel because the overwhelming bipartisan consensus in support of the Jewish state would not allow him to do so even if he were re-elected. But he is wrong to minimize the impact that Obama’s hostility toward the government of the Jewish state and what he rightly described as his “colder and more calculating” instincts about Israel has had on the alliance. Israelis understand that just as Obama would be more “flexible” in his attitude toward Russia, once the need for the election year charm offensive toward American Jews is gone, the president will revert to a policy of pressure to revive a doomed peace process. If Obama is re-elected, the Palestinians will expect him to hammer Israel again, something that could encourage violence as well as intransigence.
But the real question here is Iran. Miller assumes the lip service that Obama has given to the idea that Iran must not be allowed to go nuclear would lead him to back an Israeli attack or launch U.S. strikes on Tehran’s facilities. I think that’s a doubtful proposition at best. But the problem here is not just that it is hard to believe the president would act in this manner. Far more likely is the prospect that Obama and his allies in the P5+1 negotiations will cut an unsatisfactory deal with Iran that he will claim has removed the danger but will in fact only facilitate Iran’s ability to keep on making progress toward a bomb. If Obama allows the current talks with Iran to drag on all summer or if he weakens any of the sanctions that he was so reluctant to impose on the Islamist regime, the voters will already have gotten a preview of what is to come should he be given another four years.
Though there is a consensus on many aspects of foreign policy, the differences between a second Obama administration and a Romney presidency on foreign policy will be considerable.