The Foreign Policy Differences Between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney

Thomas F. Stephenson (Ambassador to Portugal, 2007-2009)


It strikes me that the President deserves significant credit for a number of policy actions in which he has demonstrated courage and determination in addressing matters of great importance to our national security.  While he and his surrogates had been very critical of many aspects of the Bush/Rice national security doctrine during the 2008 election campaign, once elected and fully confronted with the awesome responsibilities of being Commander in Chief, he has had the good sense to adopt many of the key provisions of his predecessor’s policies.  He effectively endorsed the Patriot Act, adopted the many surveillance techniques  for dealing with terrorism incorporated in the Act, and supported several important extensions of some key provisions of the Act last year.  After an initial plan to try a prominent terrorist in New York City, the President appropriately decided to revert to trying such terrorists by military tribunals rather than by criminal juries in public U.S. settings.  He also realized soon after his election that his campaign pledge to close Guantanamo within 12 months simply wasn’t realistic.  Appropriately, he has reverted to the Bush administration’s strategy of gradually finding homes in other countries  for as many of those held at Guantanamo as possible who aren’t considered significant threats if released to non U.S. jurisdictions.  What we do with the remaining hard core, at this point, will be left to the next administration to determine.  Finally, on this front, criticism of enhanced interrogation techniques and activities that might be characterized as rendition flights has been significantly muted.

The second very important foreign policy decision for which the President deserves praise is his decision to authorize the Navy Seal take out of Osama bin Laden.  The operable intelligence at the time was far from fully conclusive and there was lots of political risk as well as military risk for the President and the U.S. had bin Laden not been there or had the mission not been successful. While there was too much use of the first person singular pronoun in the President’s subsequent descriptions of the operation, that should not detract from the fact that it was a gutsy call by the President to give the order and an important accomplishment in the war on terror.

Thirdly, the President deserves major plaudits for the expansion of the use of drones in eliminating key terrorist operatives.  Some cynics have suggested that an important motivation for the President in expanding our use of drones is to be able to justify excessive reduction of forces in the Middle East to keep his base happy.  Nevertheless, dramatically increasing our use of  drones brings with it its own set of political risks, particularly with Pakistan.  The President deserves full credit for the elimination of many key terrorists with minimal additional insertion of our forces in harm’s way.

The foreign policy case for supporting Governor Romney is primarily based on a belief by many that President Obama has fallen short in dealing with a number of important national security challenges.  Most of these perceived policy shortcomings relate to the Middle East and our failure to provide real leadership there in a time of crisis.  The concept of “leading from behind” is an oxymoron and has proven dysfunctional on multiple fronts during the “Arab awakening” and a time of chaos and high risk in the Middle East.  Several of these foreign policy leadership abstentions are discussed briefly below.

There is nothing pretty about the process of democratization, but it is very easy to argue that stronger American leadership could have had a very positive impact in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and, maybe most importantly, Iran.  In Egypt we had a long history with Mubarak who was a terribly flawed leader in so many ways.  Nevertheless, he had been our friend and ally and we could have saved Egypt and the Middle East a lot of turmoil and distraction if we had gone to Mubarak, told him it was time to go, and provided safe transport for him and his family to a third country willing to take him.

In Libya, stronger U.S. leadership early in the process could have prevented much destruction and loss of life.  As Secretary Rice used to say, “we aren’t and can’t be the world’s 911 line,” but where we have vested interests and genuine concerns about human suffering, we shouldn’t wait around for others to take action.  Our leadership is critical and many believe that Governor Romney would have been much more aggressive in exerting leadership in lots of ways that don’t involve simply military force.

Syria has many of the same issues we faced in Libya though with a leader who has greater military capabilities on his side.  As in Libya, there has been enormous human suffering and loss of life without much evidence of President Obama providing leadership with NATO and other interested parties who share our view that Assad must go.  This administration appears to have been unsuccessful to date in either crafting a coherent strategy with our allies or persuading Russia and China that the UN should play a forceful and constructive role in Syria.  None of this is easy, but that is what true leadership is about.

Finally with regard to Iran, this administration chose to ignore an important opportunity during Iran’s 2009 election.  The opposition desperately needed and sought moral support from us and received nothing.  Our best path to a democratic and constructive Iran lies in encouraging the highly educated and democratically inclined population to revolt from within.  President Obama chose not to provide such support.  He does deserve credit for substantially tightening the economic screws on Iran through the imposition of increasingly restrictive sanctions.  Those sanctions would be even more effective, however, if they had been accompanied by a credible threat of military intervention if sanctions failed to carry the day in halting Iran’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.  Various leaks from the administration and perceived lack of resolution on the President’s part have undermined his credibility and negotiating effectiveness.

Governor Romney is not an advocate of leading from behind, and understands that nature abhors a vacuum.  The good news for his candidacy and the country is that there is now a greater recognition and acceptance in the free world that U.S. leadership is an essential ingredient in expanding freedom and democracy.