Foreign policy in the US election – a back seat?

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida

The Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida

The 2012 US presidential election will be won or lost on the economy, so it was no surprise that at the Republican National Convention (RNC), jobs and healthcare dominated – but foreign policy did make an appearance, with Mitt Romney devoting three minutes of a 39-minute speech to the issue. Neither his platform nor his speech suggest specific alternatives to President Barack Obama if he were to take office, but he has been distinguishing himself Obama in other ways in his election campaign: defence cuts and the role of the military in future foreign policy and, relatedly, the role of US leadership.

Foreign-policy rhetoric

At the RNC, Romney had to address the perception that he is weak on foreign policy, try to appeal to a party that has drifted further to the right over the last few decades, and cast himself as a credible alternative to Obama.

In his speech, Romney attacked Obama’s treatment of allies such as Israel and the UK and his failure to stop Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and accused him of being too ‘flexible’ towards Russia. Election rhetoric often has only tenuous links with a president’s actual record in office, but where he has been more specific – like on Russia – Romney has veered towards the more confrontational and hawkish factions of his party. Media analysis noted Romney’s lack of specific alternatives, which the Council on Foreign Relations’ James Lindsey described as a ‘missed opportunity’ that could make it harder for him to govern should he win the election. The Associated Press also pointed out that for the first time since 1952, a Republican nominee did not mention the word ‘war’ in his acceptance speech. But his vagueness could be a strategy, said Brian Katulis in the New York Times; because the GOP is more divided than ever on security issues in the post 9/11 era, Romney may find it difficult to bridge the gaps.

Republicans have traditionally been the stronger party on foreign and security issues, but a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 54% of voters now approve of Obama’s handling of foreign policy – a better score than George W. Bush or Bill Clinton received when they ran for re-election. For the first time in a long time, the Republican ticket lacks foreign-policy clout. For the first time since 1932, there is also no military veteran on the Republican ticket.

US leadership

The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Romney’s foreign policy strategy will be to present Obama as an outlier, and himself as mainstream to US interests.  While avoiding specifics on how he might deal with Russia or Iran, he can exploit a debate on what form US leadership should now take, and accuse Obama of betraying that role. In her RNC speech, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not mention specific Obama policies, but followed this theme by saying America could not ‘lead from behind’.

Romney might obtain some traction here while setting himself apart on the future role of the military. In January, Obama laid out a new defence plan that included cutting at least $450 billion from the armed forces over ten years. Obama has focused on a multifaceted defence profile, with a reduction of military capabilities and spending, while making the armed forces more agile, flexible and tech-savvy –  to reflect the new balances of power, interests and cooperation in international affairs, as well as new fiscal realities.

Obama’s strategy provoked concerns that, whatever the broader aims or global circumstances, the pivot on military capabilities signals a lack of resolve that makes the US weaker in the international arena. His defence plans have played into a narrative that Obama wants America to retreat from its leadership role, although he argues that America must focus on economic and political leadership, not just military strength.

Playing on this theme, Romney described Obama’s foreign trips after taking office as an ‘apology tour’, and said he would ‘never apologise’ for America.

Romney also sets himself apart on Obama’s claim that ‘the tide of war is receding.  Romney says current threats are more serious and more numerous, and wants a larger, more central role for the military. He wants the Pentagon’s base budget to equal 4% of GDP. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, ‘if the economy grows as [Romney] predicts, the nation would spend about $400 billion more on defence in Romney’s first term than Obama currently plans in his second’.

 ‘Obama’s cuts’ and sequestration

Romney has not revealed how he would pay for this increase, but there is another way he might be able to score points. Romney’s campaign has been linking Obama to other defence cuts facing the armed forces. At the RNC, Romney said “[Obama's] trillion-dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and also put our security at greater risk.”

These further cuts will be made not as part of Obama’s plan, but as a result of sequestration: additional 1.2 trillion cuts to the armed forces and other areas (although about half will be borne by the Pentagon and national security bodies) that will take effect in January unless a bipartisan super committee can craft an alternative plan – which it so far has failed to do.

The Budget Control Act was supposed to force the White House and Congress to come up with other ways to cut the deficit before January, and passed with broad Republican support. Senator John McCain voted for it, as did Romney’s running mate, Paul Ryan – although the latter clarified in an op-ed that the sequester was never supposed to become policy, and that he and other house Republicans were voting not for the laws it contained, but for the debt-limit increase they secured.

Romney and Obama have been trading barbs over the issue on the campaign trail.

Neither party wants the cuts. Republicans say they have suggested an alternative by passing a bill which makes cuts to food stamps and mandatory social programmes—which no Democrats support. Obama is asking for higher taxes on the wealthy, which is unacceptable to House Republicans.

Washington-based blog The Hill says it is unlikely that anything will happen before the election because, in a tight presidential race, both sides see the sequestration threat as ‘a winning issue on the campaign trail’. For Romney, it fits neatly into an attack on Obama’s economy and defence weakness, while Obama says Republicans are sacrificing the poor in favour of the military.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking at the IISS’s Shangri-La conference in June, said he was confident that an agreement would be found.

Regardless, the stalemate is risky. A poll found that 80% of Americans in swing states want action on sequestration before November – to say nothing of defence firms and the armed forces. The study also shows a remarkable awareness of the topic – at 77% – among those likely to vote in these states.

McCain and other senior Republicans have gone on a ‘sequestration tour’ in swing states to warn against the effects on defence and other industries. McCain has said Congress should take some of the blame for the impending cuts, but some Democrats are suspicious that this tour complements Romney’s efforts to blame the looming cuts on Obama.

It is clear that sequestration is important to voters. What is less clear is whether the issue will hurt Romney or Obama more.

On Wednesday, Obama’s campaign began to exploit Romney’s omissions, and charged that he was stuck in the Cold War. Foreign policy is likely to play a larger role in Obama’s speech than in Romney’s, but it remains to be seen if he will merely list voter-friendly successes, or explicitly address Romney’s lack of concrete plans.


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