Mitt Romney thinks Barack Obama is a terrible president. When Romney looks at Obama’s foreign policies, he sees a president who projects “passivity” in a dangerous world, as he argues in a big speech on Monday, leaving allies and enemies confused about where America stands. Which makes it curious that the policies Romney outlines in his speech differ, at most, superficially from Obama’s.
At the Virginia Military Institute, Romney will portray Obama as well-intentioned but naive when confronting the world. “We cannot support our friends and defeat our enemies in the Middle East when our words are not backed up by deeds,” Romney will say, according to the advance text provided by his team. That means putting Iran “on notice” that it can’t have a nuke; ensuring the Syrian rebels get weapons to overthrow Assad (sort of, more on that in a second); signing free trade deals; and, crucially, coaxing the Middle Eastern upheaval in a pro-American direction. And for perhaps the first time in his campaign, Romney has a huge opportunity to make this case, as the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi stands as perhaps the greatest intelligence and security failure of the Obama administration.
But more often than not, Romney accepts the policy framework that Obama created. On Iran, he’ll propose “new sanctions” and to “tighten the sanctions we currently have,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Iran policy (along with cyberattacks). On Afghanistan, he “will pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Afghanistan policy. On Libya, Romney will “support the Libyan people’s efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them,” which is the cornerstone of Obama’s Libya policy. Perhaps most surprisingly, Romney will recommit to negotiating peace between Israel and Palestine, which was a cornerstone of Obama’s Mideast policy before it crumbled into dust.
The differences Romney outlines from Obama tend to shrink under scrutiny. To confront Iran, Romney will pledge to “restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf.” But Obama has kept two carrier strike groups off Iran’s shores for at least a year, an increase from the Bush administration, along with an additional naval surge of minesweepers, gunboats and commandos. On Syria, Romney says he’ll “entify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need.” But the CIA is on the Turkey-Syrian border trying to sort out which Syrian rebels are worth funneling foreign weapons to — a difficult proposition at best — and, as the New York Times‘ David Sanger points out, Romney stops short of promising American weapons to the rebels. Romney doesn’t like Obama’s 2014 timetable for ending U.S. combat in Afghanistan (a “politically timed retreat,” Romney calls it), but, again, he’ll say he’ll stick to it while “evaluat[ing] conditions on the ground,” something less than a pledge to stay longer. But since Obama isn’t leaving Afghanistan after 2014, either, finding distinctions on Afghanistan is like counting angels on the head of a pin.
Romney will outline some substantive departures from Obama, but they’re minor ones. To stanch anti-American and anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt’s democratically elected government, Romney wants to place “clear conditions on our aid.” Obama doesn’t — but Romney doesn’t say he’ll cut Egypt off if they don’t meet the conditions, a move that might jeopardize the Egyptian-Israeli peace deal Romney pledges to preserve. Romney will repeat his pledge to hug Israel tighter than Obama has, which would at least be a change in tone, but it’s worth noting that under Obama, the Pentagon funded Israel’s major short-range missile defense system. Also, while Romney says Obama “has not signed one new free trade agreement in the past four years,” South Korea, Colombia and Panama might object.
All this might be a smart play for Romney. The first debate stopped his slide in the polls. His speech might have the effect of reassuring voters that Romney won’t swerve wildly from a foreign policy they generally like. What might be galling for Obama is that he can fairly look at a lot of Romney’s speech and say: I built that.