Steven Senne / AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses an audience during a campaign stop in Metairie, La., Friday, March 23, 2012.
Mitt Romney has made a point of carefully picking the instances in which he challenges President Barack Obama's management of foreign policy, reflecting the delicacy the Republican faces in taking on a commander in chief whose foreign policy marks are relatively high.
Romney has shown an eagerness to challenge Obama on a number of points of his national security strategy, but has emphasized his criticism of the president in particular areas where his differences are strongest.
The freshest example came this week, when the former governor seized on Obama’s comments to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, in which Obama suggested greater “flexibility” on negotiations regarding missile defense after the election.
Romney was quick to call the moment “alarming and troubling,” a sentiment in which he was eventually joined by the Republican National Committee and rival presidential candidate Rick Santorum.
“President Obama's conversation with Dmitry Medvedev raises questions not only about his policy toward Russia, but his entire foreign policy,” he wrote Wednesday for the magazine Foreign Policy in part of a sustained attack on the administration.
But Romney has used discretion in the sharpness and severity of his criticism. He’s offered boilerplate opposition to the president’s handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the popular uprisings in Libya and Syria. But on those issues, he hasn’t provided a substantively different solution.
Romney’s shown a willingness, though, to go after Obama more aggressively on his handling of Israel, Iran and Russia -- criticism tied to an overall Republican narrative that the Democratic president has weakened the standing of the U.S. on the international stage.
Romney’s recent focus on Russia helps the former governor an opportunity to contend a centerpiece of Obama’s platform in 2008, promising greater engagement on the international stage, argued Brian Hook, a foreign policy adviser to Tim Pawlenty’s erstwhile presidential campaign.
“When you look at how uncooperative at how Russia has been, I'm just kind of baffled by the warm treatment we've given them. I think it's a campaign issue,” he said. “Russia and Iran are the two countries that were the centerpiece of engagement, but he doesn't have anything to show for it.”
Elections rarely turn on issues of foreign policy; a combined 10 percent of Americans said that national security, terrorism or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the top national priority, according to the March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. The 2012 campaign is expected to hinge instead on the issues of jobs and the economy, and Romney has duly made those issues the centerpiece of his campaign.
But Romney also doesn’t have the advantage that John McCain had in the 2008 election, in which he was running to replace a lame-duck president; the winner of the election would have never previously occupied the Oval Office. In challenging Obama, Romney is forced to balance his strategy against too sharply attacking a sitting commander in chief, who could face a national security crisis at any point during the campaign.
That task is made more difficult by the fact that Obama has traditionally enjoyed higher approval ratings for his handling of foreign policy. The president also has a major feather in his cap from having ordered the successful mission to kill Osama bin Laden. (Still, a New York Times/CBS News poll this week found support for the war in Afghanistan at an all-time low following the massacre of civilians allegedly by a U.S. servicemember. Obama’s numbers on handling of foreign policy were almost evenly split in that same survey.).
But Romney’s criticism of the drawdown of the wars hasn’t extended far beyond saying he would have differed by heeding the wishes of commanders on the ground. And even a number of Republicans acknowledge significant popular fatigue for the two wars, even within the GOP.
Moreover, Romney’s tempered criticism is partly in deference to a sitting president, according to a member of Romney’s 24-person foreign policy advisory team, who asked to be quoted anonymously in order to speak more candidly on the matter.
“He has laid out a lot of foreign policy views, but when it comes to wars or people actually fighting, the first obligation comes to supporting your commander in chief,” the adviser said. “A presidential candidate has to be pretty circumspect, and I think he has been.”
That limits Romney’s options for drawing sharper contrasts with Obama on foreign policy. The ex-governor has focused more specifically on Obama’s effort to “reset” relations with Russia, and was one of the first prominent Republican voices to oppose the New START treaty.
“It helps Romney paint a broader picture of Obama as someone who's driven by politics,” said Marc Thiessen, a former Bush administration adviser on national security issues, of Romney’s criticism of Obama’s exchange with Medvedev. “It's not the silver bullet that's going to win the election for Romney, but it is part of a broader picture he should be painting of Obama.”
Romney has also focused his criticism on the president’s handling of Israel, accusing Obama of having “thrown Israel under the bus” for calling for Israel and Palestinians to return to pre-1967 borders as the negotiating basis for their peace process.
Democrats haven’t taken these attacks lightly, either. They are quick to dispute the idea that Obama has lost support with Jewish voters due to his stance toward Israel, and the DNC launched a counterattack against Romney’s comments Monday on CNN in which he called Russia the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States.
"Governor Romney’s statement sounds like a rehash of Cold War fears," former NATO Commander Gen. Wes Clark said in a statement circulated by the Democratic National Committee. "Given the many challenges we face at home and abroad, the American people deserve a full and complete explanation from Governor Romney. Good policy does not come from bumper sticker slogans."
And even while the election seems -- as of now -- to center around issues of the economy, a major foreign policy incident could reshape the narrative of the general election, a contest which seems likely to feature a battle between Romney and Obama.
“I don't think this election is going to be decided on national security, but it's an important issue to be debated by the candidates,” Thiessen said. “They're not running for treasury secretary; they're running for commander in chief.”