Foreign Policy Blogs

Romney Loses His First Foreign Policy Debate

Larry Downing/REUTERS

“Romney is a risk when it comes to foreign policy and national security,” read bullet number three in an email titled, “Five things you should know about Mitt Romney,” sent by President Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina to supporters Wednesday. Mitt Romney took on the role of presumed Republican nominee long before Rick Santorum left the race, but his direct engagement with the incumbent on foreign policy these past few weeks– and the White House’s counter-strikes– signaled an eagerness to move on to the general election, beginning with the arena that holds Obama’s greatest presidential achievements: foreign policy.

Romney began his new campaign at the end of March, when Obama, while in Seoul for the Nuclear Security Summit, was overheard delivering a candid message to Russia’s outgoing president Dmitry Medvedev. In the brief exchange, the president told Medvedev he needed “space” to solve the issue of missile defense, adding, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.”

Romney jumped on the “hot mic” moment to launch an offensive against Obama’s foreign policy record, priorities, and sincerity, but what followed was an awkward rant on an outdated issue. “[Russia] is without question our number one geopolitical foe,” Romney told CNN in response to the President’s gaffe; “They fight for every cause for the world’s worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed.” The candidate continued his line of attack in a March 27th article in Foreign Policy with the not-so-subtle title, “Bowing to the Kremlin: Why Obama’s ‘hot mic’ diplomacy is endangering America.”

Many Democratic and Republican leaders concur that both the line of argument and weight given to the president’s words were superfluous. Even House Speaker John Boehner chastised Romney for criticizing the president while he was representing the country overseas. Citing the candidate’s Cold War argumentation, Vice President Joe Biden quipped, “I don’t know where he has been.” Romney’s aggressive tone, in both the televised interview and subsequent article, drives home the No Apologies author’s fear of a diminished U.S. role on the global stage. The president, he argues, has conceded on nearly every foreign policy issue; what more will he do with post-election “flexibility”?

Romney’s strongest jab is against Vladimir Putin’s recently contested presidential re-election. Even biased observers can agree that Putin never risked a loss, and images of thousands marching in snow-covered Moscow speaks to a populace attuned to their democratic shortcomings. Yet the State Department’s open and frequent criticisms of the elections, coupled with Obama’s five-day delay in delivering the obligatory congratulatory phone call are not actions of a “we give, Russia gets” policy. There is ample space to reproach the White House regarding Putin’s re-election, and its handling of Syria, but Romney glazes over these valid points to focus on “abandoning” missile defense sites in Poland and “granting” Russia increased U.S. nuclear disarmament. In making the argument against Russia about military and geopolitical might and not human rights, Romney’s rant missed the mark.

Doug Mills/The New York Times

The choice reflects a candidate who appears gravely out of touch with current global debates. (Between his Cold War pandering and Santorum’s campaign against birth control, the Republican party did no favors to quell what liberal commentators have called a 1950s time warp). Amidst brokering new talks with North Korea, quelling Israeli warmongering and assessing Iran’s nuclear potential, pressuring Assad to end his deadly campaign, and attempting to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Russia-as-foe doesn’t make the list of pressing foreign policy concerns.  Foreign Policy Blogger Vadim Nikitin wrote that like McCain’s arguably miscalculated anti-Russia stance in 2008, Romney, “seems to have wildly misread the public mood… He’s not just stuck in the Cold War past, as Medvedev suggested, but also he’s stuck in the pre-Iraq, pre-Occupy past.” The U.S. needs fewer international foes, not more.

Perhaps in an effort to downplay the poorly received crusade against Russia, the candidate’s foreign policy advisers attempted to move the debate back to more pressing issues in an open letter to the president, printed in the National Review. Using Obama’s proposed “flexibility”, Romney’s camp raised a number of concerns over possible post-election flip-flopping on several controversial foreign policy issues, including the threat of a nuclear Iran and armed conflict with Israel, a hastened withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and a severe trimming of the defense budget. The critique is in line with traditional Republican complaints about the president’s foreign policy, a concern as Romney put it, of giving up “our exceptional place in the world.”

Yet in choosing Russia and the “flexibility” blunder as the platform from which to begin his foreign policy campaign, Romney amputated his crucial first argument. Using Obama’s “flexibility” as the uniting fault of the president’s international record ignores some of the administration’s greatest errors. (Indeed inflexibility, with regard to Iran and Syria in particular, might be a more apt criticism). This line of argument also exposes Romney to rebuttals he has trouble countering. The president’s campaign advisers responded to the Romney camp with an open letter of their own:  “We urge you to clarify exactly how and why you would depart from many of President Obama’s policies.”  Here they hit upon the central flaw in Romney’s case. The candidate’s greatest weakness among voters has arguably been consistency; by questioning Obama’s post-election policies, Romney revives the very real worry among voters about what the “etch-a-sketch” candidate’s own policies might be after the election.

An excellent argument can be made against Obama’s foreign policy record, but with this recent line of attack, Romney failed to make it.



Sarah Marion Shore
Sarah Marion Shore

Sarah Marion Shore works as an online editorial assistant at the Foreign Policy Association. Previously, she conducted research for Action Against Hunger (ACF), a global humanitarian organization committed to ending world hunger. Sarah graduated with honors from Barnard College, Columbia University, where she studied Middle East and African History. While a student, Sarah served as the primary editor and fact checker for the book "The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding", written by Political Scientist Séverine Autesserre. Sarah also spent a year in Paris studying French and International Relations at the Université Paris-Sorbonne. She currently lives in New York.
Twitter: @sarahmshore