With jobs and the economy the top issues in the presidential election, too little attention is being paid to the differences between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on foreign policy. Romney's tough talk on China, Russia and Iran, and his pandering on Israel ignore the complexities of the issues and risk escalating tensions. Obama offered a vigorous defense last week of the pragmatic approach of his first term. But the president should clearly articulate how the confrontational strategy of the Republicans would hurt the nation's security and economic interests.
Romney has little real ammunition to fire at the Obama record. Obama ended the war in Iraq, set a timetable to withdraw from Afghanistan, signed a new arms accord with Russia, and intensified the war on terrorist groups both here and abroad. He has championed free trade and sought to reset America's image in the Muslim world. He has fallen short in pursuing a Mideast peace and in bringing about democratic reforms in the most autocratic Arab and inter-American states. But Obama has framed a 21st century model for justice, inclusion and economic and human rights. America is stronger today than it was four years ago, and its standing has pushed other players to rise and act as fuller partners.
Romney has talked tough about confronting Russia and China and giving Israel the political cover it needs to make life even more miserable in the Palestinian areas. The gaffes he made on his overseas trip to Europe and Israel were small compared to the corrosive message he sent that the Cold War was a fight worth reprising. Romney has surrounded himself with many neoconservatives who distinguished themselves during George W. Bush's presidency for mishandling nearly every major foreign policy challenge, from promoting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to managing global alliances at the United Nations and other institutions. Romney has also not explained how the United States can afford to again become the world's policeman.
To be sure, Obama has made mistakes. He needlessly snubbed Republicans by refusing to obtain Congress' approval (as required by law) for the military action against Libya. He also alienated Russia and China by allowing those strikes to exceed their U.N. mandate and push Moammar Gadhafi from power. China and Russia have used that experience to block the United Nations from taking strong action in Syria. Obama's hesitation to stand with the revolution in Egypt canceled out much of the goodwill from his historic speech in Cairo in 2009 that gave voice to the Arab Spring.
Still, Obama capably defended his record in accepting the Democratic nomination. He is right that Romney is "in a Cold War mind warp" for maintaining that Russia — and not al-Qaida — is America's No. 1 enemy. The president also is right that Romney's "blustering" is no substitute for a strategy to manage threats from belligerent states, contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, or counter China's growing economic and military influence.
While the focus of this election is on the economy, foreign policy should not be neglected. One presidential debate next month will focus on foreign policy, and voters should pay close attention. Obama's accomplishments are underappreciated, and Romney's tough talk could lead the nation down a dangerous path.