WASHINGTON (JTA) — 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, has emphasized the importance of America’s international alliances and drawn his foreign policy advisers from past Republican administrations
Dan Senor, a Romney foreign policy adviser who was an adviser to the George W. Bush administration during the Iraq War, said Romney stood by principles that dated back to the Truman presidency.
"America will stand by its allies, it will help dissidents fighting for freedom around the world, it will maintain a large enough defense budget to help the U.S. defend its own national security interests, defend its homeland, and advance these principles shared by America and its allies around the world," he said, describing Romney’s foreign policy.
Senor said that Obama has embraced these principles to any degree — particularly when it comes to standing by allies — only after failing in his efforts to appease adversaries. As an example, he cited the administration’s emphasis in the first years of Obama’s term on Israel freezing settlements, as well as the president’s outreach to Iran in that period, and his refusal to back pro-democracy activists in that country.
"It was this effort to stand equidistant between traditional American allies and American adversaries," he said.
Romney, he said, would have made clear to the Palestinians that preconditions were off the table and acted sooner to isolate Iran through sanctions and other measures, including seeking incitement to genocide charges against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"These are clear paths where the administration has chosen to go, and where Governor Romney would have gone another way," he said.
Romney supporters say his hands-on, problem-solving approach would clear away the hesitancy and lack of resolve that they say has marked the Obama presidency.
Noam Neusner, a George W. Bush administration policy adviser who helped shape Romney’s foreign policy speeches 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.
"When everyone was talking about sanctions" five years ago, Neusner said, "he was looking at what kind of sanctions would work. He was looking beyond the rhetoric and seeing what specific ideas would work. In my view he comes to the table thinking about practical matters to have the impact we want to have. He won’t rely on speech and rhetoric as his primary or only weapon.”
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 a year ago for Israel and the Palestinians to use the 1967 lines as the basis for their negotiations, saying that 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’s adventurism.
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 President 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.
“Romney’s whole appeal is this kind of ‘I’m a good manager’ thing, which would lead you to expect a pretty high level of confidence and fluency, yet he seemed in the debates kind of uncomfortable on national security issues,” said Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network.
On Iran, Romney would not be as patient with Tehran as Obama, Neusner said.
“There is a significant difference, especially in terms of the follow-through,” Neusner said. “Mitt Romney would be less likely to take the time Obama has.”
Neusner said that in 2007, when Romney was studying up on the Iran issue, the former Massachusetts governor identified Iran’s likeliest vulnerability as its import of refined petroleum. He noted that sanctions targeting that sector did not kick in until 2010, and that the ability to see ahead was a measure of Romney’s analytical acumen.
“His approach to Iran was very pragmatic in the sense that he wanted to understand what actually would work with respect to stopping the Iranians from having nuclear weapon capabilities,” Neusner recalled. “He and his advisers looked squarely at what were the pressure points. One of the things he seized upon was refined gasoline. Now we’re getting around to that as a matter of American policy. He was ahead of the curve.”
Romney’s campaign has made much of the president’s tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A recent front-page story in The New York Times outlined the decades-long friendship between Romney and the Israeli leader, dating back to their days in the 1970s as investment analysts at the same Massachusetts firm.
Miller of the Wilson Center said such relationships ultimately can have an impact on policy, particularly when it comes to an Israel decision on when and if to strike Iran.
“Barack Obama does not come from that place” of an emotional connection with an Israeli leader, as does Romney with Netanyahu, or Bill Clinton with Yitzhak Rabin and George W. Bush with Ariel Sharon, Miller said.
“He’s not an anti-Semite or an Israel hater, but he does not have the automatic response,” Miller said of Obama. “Romney will give the Israelis the benefit of the doubt because that’s the way he feels.”
Romney also might oppose an Israeli strike on Iran — but he would be likelier to elicit trust from the Israeli leadership, Miller said.
“You will have a different emotional response from a Romney presidency,” he said.