Romney’s Critique of Obama’s Foreign Policy Record Is Incredibly Weak

The Romney campaign's critique of the President's foreign policy record is weak, and based on bad history.

Virtually from the day he took office, the Republicans have been pushing the meme that President Obama is weak on foreign policy. He wanted to talk to the Iranians they say, while ignoring the fact that he made initial overtures to the Iranians that, when rebuffed, led him to double down on the sanctions regime that had been established by the Bush Administration. He apologizes for America everywhere he goes, they claim, even though there’s absolutely no evidence to support that assertion. He has abandoned our alliance with Israel, they assert, even though Israeli officials have consistently said that the strategic and military partnership between the U.S. and Israel has never been better. He’s weak, they argue, even though he has presided over SEAL raids to take out Somalian pirates and kill Osama bin Laden, and has dramatically expanded the anti-terrorist drone program from the levels it was at in the final years of the Bush Administration. On some level, it’s kind of bizarre that they continue pushing this meme despite the evidence against it.

In his column this weekend, Steve Chapman explores this Republican delusion about the President’s foreign policy weakness further:

They are employing a narrative that has worked for them at least since the Carter era: Weakness breeds aggression, and strength deters it. Democrats are weak, and Republicans are strong. When anything goes wrong overseas under a Democratic president, it’s because no one respects or fears him. Otherwise it wouldn’t happen.

Of course, Democrats used to have great success depicting Republicans as the party of Herbert Hoover, whom they blamed for the Great Depression. But they had to give that up after Reagan presided over an economic boom. Reality no longer supported the narrative. Voters knew better.

That’s the GOP’s problem with Obama. He expanded the war in Afghanistan, used U.S. air power to topple Moammar Gadhafi, and rained drone missiles on terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Hmm. Was there something else? Oh, right! He killed Osama bin Laden.

Americans seem to have noticed. In the latest CNN/ORC International poll, Americans trust Obama more than Mitt Romney on foreign policy by a margin of 54 percent to 42 percent.

But in the aftermath of the violent protests this past week, Romney’s campaign reverted to type. “It’s a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values,” he said. His chief foreign policy adviser, Richard Williamson, insisted the demonstrations erupted because “the respect for America has gone down, there’s not a sense of American resolve.”

Really? So why was there a wave of fierce anti-American protests across the Middle East in 2003, as President George W. Bush was preparing to invade Iraq? The State Department was so alarmed it advised Americans to avoid 17 different countries across the region and beyond.

Our diplomats have nothing to fear when we’re strong? Under Bush, there were violent attacks on American embassies in Yemen, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, India and Turkey. A U.S. diplomat was assassinated in Sudan. Another was murdered in Pakistan.

Those are not proof that Bush was weak or even wrong in his foreign policy. They are proof that the president of the United States is not the Lord of the Universe. Even if he does everything right, nasty developments will ensue.

Chapman also points out that the conservative critique of Obama’s foreign policy, as flawed as it is when it comes to the facts, would also seem to apply to the great advocate of “Peace Through Strength,” Ronald Reagan:

On Aug. 31, 1983, a South Korean airliner flying from New York to Seoul drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace. After tracking the civilian plane for more than two hours, Soviet fighter pilots were told to shoot it down. They did, killing 269 people, including 60 Americans. It was one of the most shocking atrocities of the Cold War.

It occurred during the first term of perhaps the most staunchly anti-Communist president America has ever had, Ronald Reagan, an advocate of robust military power. And how did Reagan respond? He called it a “crime against humanity,” and then, um, postponed some cultural exchanges with the Soviets.

Some of his admirers were aghast at this display, as Steven Hayward notes in his 2009 book, “The Age of Reagan.” New York Times columnist William Safire said Reagan “has acted more pusillanimously than Jimmy Carter.” Polls showed most Americans thought he had done too little, prompting the president to ask, “Short of going to war, what would they have us do?”

Conservatives invariably claim that any show of weakness emboldens aggressors and endangers peace. But just six years later, the Soviet empire collapsed. By 1991, the Soviet Union was gone. Maybe in his restraint, which looked disgraceful at the time, Reagan was acting wisely.

I was a teenager at the time that KAL 007 was shot down, and I remember well the shock and anger that reverberated through the nation when word came out that Soviet fighter jets had shot down a passenger jet filled with hundreds of passengers. It seemed to confirm all of the worst stereotypes about the Soviet Union that the most hard-right anti-Communists had been preaching for decades. Chapman is correct that Reagan’s response to the incident infuriated many people, and not just hard line conservatives. It seemed at the time like an incredibly weak response to a case of outright murder. Reagan was right in his muted response, though. Escalating tensions with the Soviet Union at a time when they were undergoing a leadership crisis — at the time, Yuri Andropov was in poor health and would be dead just five months later — would have been unwise, and it would have likely upset Reagan’s goal of  getting the Soviets back to the negotiating table for a new arms control treaty. That didn’t stop many on the right from calling him weak at the time, and they renewed those calls in the late 80s when he and Mikhail Gorbachev worked together to bring the Cold War to an end and reduce the threat of nuclear war. Those critics were wrong, and Reagan was right. Talking to your adversaries doesn’t make you an appeaser, and refraining from chest thumping jingoism in the face of an international crisis doesn’t make you weak.

What’s odder about all of this is that Republicans actually think that trying to portray President Obama as weak will actually work electorally. Poll after poll has shown that the President far outpaces Mitt Romney on the question of who voters trust with regard to foreign policy, and the President’s job approval on foreign policy matters is positive. There’s little indication that the public disapproves of anything that the President  has done in the foreign policy realm, and absolutely no indication that they support the more aggressive foreign policy positions advocated by Mitt Romney and the Republicans. More importantly, the argument that the Obama White House has been weak on foreign policy doesn’t strike me as one that voters are going to find all that plausible, especially given the fact that Romney himself has been rather vague about what he would do differently beyond slogans and talking points. More importantly, when it comes to a foreign policy debate with the President, it appears as though Mitt Romney is bringing a pocket knife to a gunfight.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, Campaign 2012, National Security, Politicians, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Hardliners were pretty angry that Reagan released Soviet ground-to-fighter transcripts, revealing a high eavesdropping ability.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Not the hardliners, but intelligence professionals who feared loss of access to Soviet voice intercepts. But James Bamford’s “The Puzzle Palace” published about the same time pretty much blew open the secrecy around the NSA.

  3. Mr. Replica says:

    As much as I agree with this article, mainly because this is what reality of the situation dictates, It does not matter much to anyone who already have their minds made up on the matter. With those that agree with the article, it’s just reinforces reality. While it is just going to be another case of liberal bias here at OTB to those that equate anything Obama with being bad. (Therefore that makes Doug a “loopy lefty” who just see’s things through “liberal lenses”.)

    While Obama may not be the best at foreign policy, he is still better than the chicken-hawk, pro-war, pro-torture alternative.
    Why would Romney feel bad about jumping head first into another war? Or feel regret about allowing America to have a official pro-torture reputation?

    No apologies, remember that.

  4. Me Me Me says:

    The fact that Romney’s first reaction to the still-unfolding events in Libya was to rush to a microphone and say “See, Obama fits into my fictious narrative of Obama!!!” demonstrates that even if Obama had been a total failure in foreign policy (he’s not), Romney would be even worse.

  5. mattb says:

    RE: KAL 007… We should also not forget that only a few years later our own military would end up embroiled in a similar incident in which one of our warships shot down an Iranian Passenger Jet – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran_Air_Flight_655

  6. michael reynolds says:

    Did you forget Lebanon? 241 Marines killed by terrorists quite likely directed by Iran. And what did Mr. Reagan do? Cut, ran, and traded arms with the Iranians.

    Doug, it’s really not that hard to understand conservative thinking. Mr. Obama is . . . different.

    Mr. Obama is not a big, tough-talking white male. It is simply impossible for the conservative mind to contemplate the possibility that a man who does not look like them could be a strong leader.

    You might as well ask 10th century Vikings to love a Zulu warrior. They cannot make that leap. There is no mystery here. It’s right out there in plain sight. A blind man could see it. Ta daaa! There it is!

    The conservative mind is incapable by definition from seeing virtue in diversity. I mean, Jesus, what do you think conservatism is? It is the human mind minus imagination.

    I know people want this to be about policy, particularly all the STEM types who populate the internet. But occasionally you might want to consult with us artsy fartsy types because believe it or not we probably have a better handle on the nature of homo sapiens as he actually is.

  7. Mr. Replica says:

    George Will: No, President Romney Wouldn’t Have Prevented The Libya Attack

    Asked on ABC’s “This Week” if there’s reason to believe that the situation would be different under a President Romney, Will said, “No.”

    “The great superstition of American politics concerns presidential power, and during a presidential year that reaches an apogee — and it becomes national narcissism,” he said. “Everything that happens anywhere in the world, we cause, or we could cure with … presidential rhetoric.”


    George Will: Obama Is Not Turning His Back On Israel

    Conservative columnist George Will said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” roundtable that it’s unfair to accuse President Obama of turning his back on Israel.

    “I really do not think it’s fair to fault the president for ‘throwing Israel under the bus,’ as they say,” Will said. “Granted, he has a bad relationship with my good friend [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, but the relationships between the U.S. military and the Israeli military, which is 98 percent of the point of this relationship, are quite good.”

    Another loopy lefty spouting his mouth off. I wonder what prescription he has for those lenses…?

  8. Gustopher says:

    Other than an increase in antagonistic statements, have Obama’s critics had any concrete alternatives?

    The drones bother me, but the alternatives are doing nothing, and bombing the entire countryside.

    Protests, a dead ambassador, small scale attacks on our troops? This is –ultimately– tiny pinpricks on a nation as strong as we are. We shouldn’t respond as if these were crippling blows. Yes, hit back, but do so calmly and strategically. We can actually afford to do nothing, while waiting for the right opportunity.

    Romney calls for us to act as a weak nation, with our enemies provoking a response at every turn.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    On Aug. 31, 1983, a South Korean airliner flying from New York to Seoul drifted off course and entered Soviet airspace. After tracking the civilian plane for more than two hours, Soviet fighter pilots were told to shoot it down. They did, killing 269 people, including 60 Americans.

    Made me think of…

    Iran Air Flight 655 was a civilian jet airliner shot down by U.S. missiles on 3 July 1988 as it flew over the Strait of Hormuz at the end of the Iran–Iraq War. The aircraft, an Airbus A300B2-203 operated by Iran Air, was flying from Bandar Abbas, Iran to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. While flying in Iranian airspace over Iran’s territorial waters in the Persian Gulf on its usual flight path, it was destroyed by the United States Navy guided missile cruiser USS Vincennes (CG-49). All 290 onboard including 66 children and 16 crew perished.[1

    But then, I hate America.

  10. john personna says:

    The key difference is that those released transcripts show that the Soviets knew they had a jetliner whereas the Vincennes thought they had an incoming attack, right?

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    Exactly. Romney wants to be the bull at the bullfight.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Mr. Obama is not a big, tough-talking white male. It is simply impossible for the conservative mind to contemplate the possibility that a man who does not look like them could be a strong leader.

    Just curious Michael, but have you ever noticed how weak Obama is as President wearing a blue or gray suit and jacket, but if he put on a leather jacket, a black beret, and stood in front of a polling place, Republicans would be totally terrified of him?

  13. mattb says:

    @john personna:
    The official reports suggested that confusing UI was in part to blame. But contemporaries of the captain involved suggested that he had been looking for an opportunity to demonstrate US force and might have jumped the gun on the fire order.

  14. michael reynolds says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Obama has already demonstrated his ability to be simultaneously Muslim and socialist, simultaneously so stupid he can barely graduate and yet a master of mesmerizing rhetoric that clouds men’s minds, a communist and a Nazi and an Islamist, all without changing outfits.

    So, frankly, if you’re going to allow the man a costume change, then hey, he could be anything.

  15. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    The key difference is that those released transcripts show that the Soviets knew they had a jetliner whereas the Vincennes thought they had an incoming attack, right?

    Yes, absolutely, or so we have been told…. But tell that to the Iranians who lost 306 innocents…. and for the record, I am not saying we shot down a civilian airliner on purpose, I am saying that to them It doesn’t matter.

    And it would not matter to us either.

  16. Ron Beasley says:

    Romney does nothing but repeat neoconservative/Likud boilerplate talking points. As this shows :Majority Of Americans Oppose Attacking Iran, a majority of Americans aren’t buying those talking points. Romney may well have turned this into a foreign policy election and it has hurt him.

  17. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Obama has already demonstrated his ability to be simultaneously Muslim and socialist, simultaneously so stupid he can barely graduate and yet a master of mesmerizing rhetoric that clouds men’s minds, a communist and a Nazi and an Islamist, all without changing outfits.

    Wow…. no wonder I am so confused

  18. In 1996, the United States and Iran reached “an agreement in full and final settlement of all disputes, differences, claims, counterclaims” relating to the incident at the International Court of Justice. As part of the settlement, the United States agreed to pay US$61.8 million, an average of $213,103.45 per passenger, in compensation to the families of the Iranian victims. However, the United States has never admitted responsibility, nor apologized to Iran.

    Let’s keep perspective, and when you look for comparisons, match that one with things settled and compensated. We wouldn’t want to go left-wing paranoid on this.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Correction: Just curious Michael, but have you ever noticed how weak Obama is as President wearing a blue or gray suit and jacket, but if he put on a leather jacket, a black beret, and stood in front of a polling place, Republicans would be totally terrified of him?

    SHOULD have read:
    Just curious Michael, but have you ever noticed how weak Obama is as President wearing a blue or gray suit and jacket and CIC of the most powerful military the world has ever known, able to blot out countries with the push of a single button….. but if he put on a leather jacket, a black beret, and stood in front of a polling place, Republicans would be totally terrified of him?

    My apologies.

  20. Woody says:

    I’m so ancient that I can remember Republicans asking rhetorically, “Why should we be the world’s policeman?”

    I’m so leftist that I agreed with them. And still do.

  21. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    Let’s keep perspective, and when you look for comparisons, match that one with things settled and compensated. We wouldn’t want to go left-wing paranoid on this.

    John, imagine for a second, that your wife was among those killed, or God forbid your son or daughter was among those killed…

    There is no compensation sufficient. I know, I have watched others go thru that awful situation and have twice looked it in the eye, and thankfully…. it blinked…. both times I thought my sons were dead…. I was lucky…. My sons were lucky.

    As is I am not filled with hatred, anger…and a lust for death…. but I know what it is like to wish for another to die, to be willing to trade my life so that another might live…. Because I have. I am not proud of that fact, but I do acknowledge it because…. It is the truth.

    ps: and for the record, my ex goes to prison for the 2nd time in a few weeks. (6 years) I had nothing to do with it. The first time…. I did. And my sons confronted me with that fact and I answered truthfully. I wonder if any one else out there has the courage to say to their children, “Yeah, I sent your mother to prison.”

    Hardest thing I have ever done. Best thing I have ever done. Saved my son’s life. (so far).

    No apologies.

    I doubt Mitt has a clue.

  22. Ron Beasley says:

    @Woody: Me too!

  23. So, no one should die accidentally. I think we got that.

    What we started was with the intentional shoot-down of a passenger jet by a soviet flier, who didn’t want to do it, who kept protesting, but who was ordered to by his superiors.

  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @john personna:

    What we started was with the intentional shoot-down of a passenger jet by a soviet flier, who didn’t want to do it, who kept protesting, but who was ordered to by his superiors.

    John, what you don’t seem to get, is that nobody wants to kill innocents.

    Russians? No.

    Americans? No.

    But the innocents keep dying.

    Maybe…. just maybe…. we have the wrong model?

  25. mattb says:

    @john personna:

    Let’s keep perspective, and when you look for comparisons, match that one with things settled and compensated. We wouldn’t want to go left-wing paranoid on this.

    John my point was not to suggest equivalency in the motivation of the actions. Rather it’s to demonstrate the danger of saber rattling and calls for war. Reagan chose a good path in the wake of the plane being shot down.

    My point was that imagine if he had chosen to go to war or stage a reciprocal strike? And then imagine what would have happened a few years later, when the US — intentionally or not — ends up shooting down a passenger plane?

  26. michael reynolds says:

    Interesting from Ha’aretz.

    At the last cabinet meeting before Rosh Hashanah, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu counted his government’s achievements for each Hebrew month of the passing year. In Tishri there was the release of Gilad Shalit, in Adar his speech at the AIPAC conference, and in Nisan the Bank of Israel’s announcement that the economy had grown 4.7 percent for the year. Apart from real achievements such as the fence on the Egyptian border and the reform of the cell phone market, Netanyahu boasted largely about declarative events, including “the launching of an international environmental campaign.”

    It was no fluke the list lacked anything about international relations. Even the Netanyahu government’s most significant achievement, rallying the world against Iran’s nuclear program, is showing cracks due to a unique combination of aggressiveness, self-victimization, hysteria and arrogance. Netanyahu’s endless warmongering is boomeranging and his crude interference in the U.S. presidential election has led to an unprecedented crisis with the White House.

    The Israelis are less pro-Bibi than Mitt Romney is.

  27. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Woody: Sadly, that was Republicans who were “out of power.” Maybe they should go back there–power doesn’t seem to suit their philosophy well.

  28. Jc says:

    Imagine if Mitt actually was himself instead of trying to be so severely conservative. It’s that pain of watching someone pretend and try to be someone they are not that makes Mitt lose ground. Had he been himself this whole foreign policy front probably would not have happened.

  29. Ron Beasley says:

    @michael reynolds: I understand that 60% of the Israelis are against an attack on Iran. I also understand that the Israeli military an Mossad oppose an attack. Netenanyahu is a crazy man who is trying to get the U.S. to do what his own people won’t let him do.

  30. michael reynolds says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    It is really appalling behavior by Netanyahu. He is doing lasting damage to the US-Israel relationship. I’m a lifelong supporter of Israel and a (ethnic) Jew. At the point where I’m left thinking, “Fwck Israel,” something has gone really wrong.

  31. Lit3Bolt says:

    @michael reynolds:

    B-b-b-but only by ethnic cleansing, first strikes with nuclear weapons, religious terrorism, assassination, and turning every ally into an enemy can we keep Israel safe!!

  32. Fiona says:

    @Jc:

    Imagine if Mitt actually was himself instead of trying to be so severely conservative. It’s that pain of watching someone pretend and try to be someone they are not that makes Mitt lose ground. Had he been himself this whole foreign policy front probably would not have happened.

    And who would Romney be if he was being himself? Nobody knows because there is no there there. People suspect that he shifts his positions based on whatever he thinks it is will get him elected. So I doubt “being himself” would help, especially at this point.

  33. @OzarkHillbilly:

    You are wrong that no one wants to shoot down civilians:

    General Kornukov (to Military District Headquarters-Gen. Kamenski): (5:47) “…simply destroy [it] even if it is over neutral waters? Are the orders to destroy it over neutral waters? Oh, well.” Kamenski: We must find out, maybe it is some civilian craft or God knows who.” Kornukov: “What civilian? [It] has flown over Kamchatka! It [came] from the ocean without identification. I am giving the order to attack if it crosses the State border.

    Kornukov didn’t care. He was going to shoot down anything that crossed Kamchatka.

  34. grumpy realist says:

    @john personna: I think it was Seymour Hersh who did an analysis of the whole KAL embroglio several years later. It’s taken as the major case showing what happens when you have underlings too frightened/intimidated by culture/training to point out doubts to supervisors. (The KAL pilot put in the wrong course into the automatic piloting system)