Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign promised last week he would outline a "stark contrast" between his proposals and President Obama's "failed" efforts to put an American stamp on the evolving face of the Middle East.
But a closer look at Romney's remarks today in Virginia reveal a varied gameplan, with some policies surprisingly similar to the president's and others, as advertised, broadly divergent.
The split is evident when one considers the composition of Romney's staff, one expert said, noting that the candidate has drawn from all corners of the Republican tent.
"There's an old adage to the affect that 'personnel is policy,'" and Romney's staff is "very much divided between the Neocon pole and the more traditionally Realist pole," Brookings Institution Senior Fellow William Galston said after the speech. "And if press reports are to be believed, Romney has taken advice from both. This is a pretty good camp strategy for keeping both sides of Republican establishment happy. What it means down the road has not been clarified."
From Libya to the Israelis and Palestinians, with mentions of Iran, Egypt, Al Qaeda and Syria pressed between, Romney hit all the Middle Eastern hotspots. Here's a case-by-case look at where the Republican set himself apart from President Obama and the issues on which they do, in fact, share more common ground than one might expect.
|Afghanistan: When to Leave?|
Romney said he would "pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," right in line with the Obama timeline for withdrawal. Romney qualified this by saying he would "evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders" before making that decision.
When asked after the speech if Romney would, in fact, delay the return home of American troops from Afghanistan if he wasn't satisfied with the situation on the ground, his campaign would not offer a definitive response.
"I read the speech as opening up that question without giving an answer to it," Galston said of Romney potentially extending U.S. troops' stay in the country. "Obama's commitment to a date is pretty unequivocal. I don't read Romney's commitment as being similarly unequivocal. I guess the Romney campaign is entitled to say we'll cross that bridge when we get to it. I do think that refusing to endorse is distinction worth notice. What its cash value is remains to be seen."
Daniel Serwer, a senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins, said he'd be surprised if Romney veered too far from Obama's planned road home.
"He might push it back a couple of months," Serwer said in an email, "but he has never suggested anything more dramatic than that. This is a distinction without a difference."
|Israelis and Palestinians|
There is also some question over how a Romney administration would materially alter the current policy on Israel and the Palestinians. Even as Republicans accuse Obama of breaking too often with the Israeli government, military and intelligence cooperation between the states has, by all accounts, been as robust as ever. Rhetorically, there is a clear divide, one Romney argues has real-world consequences.
"The president explicitly stated that his goal was to put 'daylight' between the United States and Israel and he has succeeded," Romney said, making reference to Obama's cool relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. "This is a dangerous situation that has set back the hope of peace in the Middle East and emboldened our mutual adversaries, especially Iran."
But Romney's best known departure from current U.S. policy did not come today in Virginia. Rather, it can be found in comments made during the now infamous "47 percent" fundraiser in Florida, during which he presented a more "stark" view of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway," Romney told donors in May. "And so what you do is you say you move things along the best way you can. You hope for some degree of stability, but you recognize that it's going to remain an unsolved problem… All right, we have a potentially volatile situation, but we sort of live with it. And we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve. We don't go to war to try and resolve it."
Today, Romney sounded a different tune, one in much greater harmony with Obama's public pronouncements.
"I will recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel," he said to the white-clad cadets at VMI. "In this old conflict, as in every challenge we face in the Middle East, only a new president will bring the chance to begin anew."
|Iran and The Bomb|
Romney has been quick to criticize the Obama administration's tack in dealing with Iran's nuclear program. The question over where the "red line" of no return sits has been debated for years, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu trying to draw it, literally, during his speech at United Nations General Assembly last week.
Speaking today, Romney appeared to take a more hawkish turn.
"I will put the leaders of Iran on notice that the United States and our friends and allies will prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons capability," he said.
Former U.S. Ambassador Mark Lagon, a professor at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and adjunct senior fellow at The Council on Foreign Relations, explains: "Preventing Iranian nuclear weapons capability rather than assembled weapons means the Romney position is tougher, requiring stopping the slide toward those aims by Iran from continuing. Romney is clearly less disturbed by the prospect of any Israeli strike on Iran than [President Obama.]"
During a Sept. 14 interview with George Stephanopoulos, Romney said his "red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon."
When Stephanopoulos pointed out that Obama said the same and asked Romney if, by that measure, they were in agreement, the candidate said, "Yes."
|Continued Aid to Egypt?|
"In Egypt," Romney said, "I will use our influence -- including clear conditions on our aid -- to urge the new government to represent all Egyptians, to build democratic institutions, and to maintain its peace treaty with Israel. And we must persuade our friends and allies to place similar stipulations on their aid."
Obama has taken a similarly cautious tack with the new Egyptian government, warning that any break in its longstanding relationship with Israel could have dire effects on its alliance with the U.S.
"You know, I don't think that we would consider them an ally, but we don't consider them an enemy," Obama said during a September interview with Telemundo. "They are a new government trying to find its way, they were democratically elected. I think we are going to have to see... how they respond to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel."
For now, the rhetoric matches. And that's likely how it will stay until a regional crisis puts both sides' resolve to the test.
"It remains to be seen what aid will be conditioned on," Golston said. "We don't know yet what policy baseline is."
|Arm the Rebels in Syria?|
Here, Romney made his most distinct rhetorical break with the current administration, saying he would "work with our partners to identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets."
The White House has sanctioned the delivery of "non-lethal" aid to the Syrian rebels, but just how much and what kind has mostly been a mystery. The New York Times reported that the CIA had begun to do precisely what Romney promised today – funnel arms to specially designated factions (the one who "share our values," one might say) of anti-Assad fighters.
Lagon submits this distinction: "Romney is more forward leaning than the present covert policy--to stand against the Assad regime's atrocities with overt aid to armed opposition forces. He understands we can't be dainty about who we support, but we ought to look for basic support of values of pluralism in those we back."
|The Embassy Attack in Libya|
Romney: "In Libya, I will support the Libyan people's efforts to forge a lasting government that represents all of them, and I will vigorously pursue the terrorists who attacked our consulate in Benghazi and killed our fellow Americans"
Since the NATO intervention began in February 2011, the United States has provided $170 million in humanitarian, governance and security assistance to the Libyan government in transition. Additionally, both Secretary Clinton and President Obama have said that America will pursue the terrorists who carried out the attack in Benghazi and bring them to justice. There are also reports that the Obama administration is considering launching strikes on the operatives they believe responsible.
Romney, though, also used the Benghazi attack as anecdotal evidence of Al Qaeda's resurgence in North Africa.
"The attacks on America last month should not be seen as random acts," he said, adopting a more cautious tone than in the immediate aftermath. "They are expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East—a region that is now in the midst of the most profound upheaval in a century. And the fault lines of this struggle can be seen clearly in Benghazi itself."
|The Fight Against Al Qaeda|
"America can take pride in the blows that our military and intelligence professionals have inflicted on Al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the killing of Osama bin Laden. These are real achievements won at a high cost," Romney said. "But Al-Qaeda remains a strong force in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq, and now in Syria. And other extremists have gained ground across the region. Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East."
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, speaking on behalf of the Obama administration, found Romney's larger vision wanting.
"There's an awful lot of rhetoric, but when you get to specifics you don't get the sense that he knows the tools to use in an international setting," she said. "I just find him very shallow in the ideas he has."
Romney vowed that he would demand more from NATO members, whom he would hold to "their commitment to each devote 2 percent of their GDP to security spending. Today, only three of the 28 NATO nations meet this benchmark."
On his last visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels in June 10, 2011 former Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that the alliance had become "two-tiered" and contrasted members "willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments, and those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership ... but don't want to share the risks and the costs."
Obama and Romney are in agreement here.The problem, Republicans say, is not in the idea, but the execution.
|Rebuilding the Middle East After the Arab Spring|
Romney says he has a plan: "I will make further reforms to our foreign assistance to create incentives for good governance, for free enterprise, and for greater trade, in the Middle East and beyond. I will organize all assistance efforts in the greater Middle East under one official with responsibility and accountability to prioritize efforts and to produce results. I will rally our friends and allies to match our generosity with theirs. And I will make it clear to the recipients of our aid that, in return for our material support, they must meet the responsibilities of every decent modern government—to respect the rights of all of their citizens, including women and minorities… to ensure space for civil society, a free media, political parties, and an independent judiciary… and to abide by their international commitments to protect our diplomats and our property."
Obama, too, has a plan. They are very much alike.
Beginning Last Year the G8 Alliance, led by the Obama administration, formed the Deuville Partnership, a program where G8 countries partner with the Arab League to help rebuild Middle East countries affected by the Arab spring and those at risk of unrest. The key element to the partnership are developing and distributing a $1.2 billion fund to build infrastructure and small businesses in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Morocco and Jordan. In addition the United States is working with the European bank to distribute another $1.3 billion fund for infrastructure projects over the coming years. The Deauville partnership is also working on accountability, training and anti-corruption programs
In Egypt specifically the United States is providing $375 million in financing and loan guarantees for American financiers who invest in Egypt and a $60 million investment fund for Egyptian businesses.
|Is Obama Gutting the Navy?|
Romney would say "yes."
"The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916," he reported in today's speech. "I will restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines. I will implement effective missile defenses to protect against threats."
But his stats -- and so his characterization of the Obama administration's priorities -- are off the mark.
A report by Naval History and Heritage Command provides a look at the decrease in the number of Navy ships over the past 50 years since the peak during World War Two. According to this study in 1916 the U. S. Navy had 245 ships. From that date on until 2003 the Navy maintained more than 300 ships in the fleet. The number of ships in the fleet fell to its lowest point in 2006 when there were 278 ships in the fleet. Since then the number of ships has increase to the current 285. Beginning in 2011 the U.S. Navy began adding two new submarines a year instead of the one a year it had been buying.
The Navy is expected to add two Virginia Class attack submarines a year through fiscal year 2016.