Beyond Bin Laden: Romney Sees Room on Foreign Policy

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney gestures while speaking in San Diego, Calif on March 26, 2012.Steven Senne/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney gestures while speaking in San Diego, Calif on March 26, 2012.

When Osama bin Laden was killed last year, Democrats rejoiced. The conventional thinking was that President Obama's role in the swift operation was enough to disarm Republicans of a key charge: that the White House was weak on foreign policy.

But as Mitt Romney appears to turn the last corner on winning the Republican nomination, his team thinks otherwise.

The Romney campaign sees room to challenge Obama on Iran, Israel, China and Russia, according to a foreign policy expert familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named. Of those countries, Iran — and the threat it would pose with a nuke — is probably the ripest for Romney to pluck.

"I think the campaign senses some political vulnerability on Obama's handling of Iran," the expert said, adding that while Obama hasn't been hawkish about a military strike, Romney will "do a lot to make the Iranians worry that it's a risk."

Obama's recent comment about having "more flexibility" once he's reelected, which he told Russia's president over a microphone he didn't realize was on, is a reminder that while foreign policy is far from the most important topic to voters, it will always be one of the most significant areas of the presidency.

Picking apart Obama's foreign policy record may be a challenge, but it's not one the Romney campaign is forgoing. On Wednesday, Romney wrote in the magazine Foreign Policy that "Obama's conversation with Dmitry Medvedev raises questions not only about his policy toward Russia, but his entire foreign policy." He questioned Obama's positions on Iran, Israel, Cuba and Venezuela.

Foreign policy is bound to surface during a presidential debate, and while Romney has brandished strong rhetoric during the primary, his biggest problem is that Obama can always remind the public that he oversaw the operation that killed Bin Laden — an accomplishment he's shown that he's not afraid to tout modestly.

"Obama's vulnerabilities on foreign policy are kind of minor vulnerabilities," said Richard Betts, a Columbia political science professor who has worked on a Senate intelligence committee and advised the C.I.A. and the N.S.C.

Beyond Bin Laden's corpse, Obama can point to an array of developments since he became president that bolster his foreign policy resume (essentially empty when he was Candidate Obama), including the end of the regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qadhafi, a new arms treaty with Russia, the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, and scaling back in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

What's more is that the public is generally on his side in most of these areas. At the end of last year, for example, more than three-quarters of Americans sided with Obama over pulling troops out of Iraq, according to a CBS poll.

But conservatives say the door isn't closed on Romney's staking out meaningful differences with Obama. Jim Carafano, the director of the conservative Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, said that in "every single foreign policy issue," Romney can argue that he would do things differently. For example:

On Iran, Romney can say Obama tried to engage with the regime for too long instead of sanctioning the Islamist leaders. Same goes for Syria.

On China, he can call Obama's position ambivalent and push for better human rights and currency regulation. "He intends to press China more on that," noted the person familiar with Romney's campaign.

On Russia, he could say there's been no "reset" and that the Russians haven't stepped up to help the United States — and that the "New Start" arms deal benefited them more than Americans.

Below the border, Romney can poke at Obama's troubled relationship with Mexico's president and force him to defend his history with Hugo Chavez-run Venezuela.

"We can't really fault him much on his Antarctic policy," Carafano said.

The goal is to discard Obama's Bin Laden trump card and focus on other issues, so that in a rare foreign policy debate in an election that's destined to be focused on the economy, Romney is at least formidable rather than disqualified from the start.

So far, Romney has pleased some Jewish voters with his unequivocal rhetoric supporting Israel — while it's not unlike Obama's own phrasing, he doesn't have a history of irking Bibi Netanyahu that might dog him.

"I'm not sure Romney's promising that he can bring peace to the Middle East, but he is saying Israel's not going to have to worry so much about having its arm broken," said the person familiar with the ex-governor's campaign.

Nearly all foreign policy analysts concede that their issue of expertise is likely to rank low on the list of voters' priorities this year. An election season fixated on the economy has already veered toward abortion, gay marriage, religion and health care — and the primary isn't over yet. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton jabbed at Obama's empty foreign policy bona fides with a famous ad in which a "3 a.m. phone call" requires the president to respond to a crisis. Voters in the GOP primary now appear to be more concerned with birth control than international crises.

Still, candidates owe it to the country to talk about foreign policy, Carafano said — because if they disguise their views during the campaign, "the world doesn't know who you are" come January.