Failure to Launch

Why Romney’s critique of Obama’s foreign policy record will not fly

Mitt Romney picked a bad day to launch a blistering attack on Barack Obama’s foreign policy. As Romney was speaking to the annual gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, charging Obama with weakness, betrayal and mendacity, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal released a new poll. It turns out that on “handling of foreign policy,” Americans prefer Obama to Romney by 15 points.

Romney’s principal charge against Obama is that he has angered America’s allies and emboldened its enemies. Again, it turns out that some recently released data contradict the claim. The Pew Foundation released one of its global surveys in June, soliciting opinions from several countries around the world. When asked if they have “some” or a “great deal of” trust in President Obama, the numbers are overwhelmingly positive. In Britain, for example, which is Romney’s first stop on his foreign tour, 80% of people trust Obama, compared with 16% who trusted George W. Bush. All countries surveyed have much higher approval ratings of America in 2012 than they did in 2008, when Bush was President. (It’s fair to note that the numbers have come down from their 2009 highs, just after Obama’s Inauguration, when expectations were soaring.)

In order to give substance to his claim that Obama has let down our allies, Romney dwells at length on a minor issue: the supposed humiliation of the Poles and Czechs over the building of an antimissile system. That is presumably why Romney chose to visit Poland, a country where he thinks attitudes toward Obama will be distinctly cool. That narrative is often repeated on the right. On July 23 the conservative commentator George Weigel of National ­Review argued that the Poles are extremely nervous about this election, worried that Obama might remain in the White House and continue his allegedly anti-­Polish policies.

The Pew survey, however, gives us the numbers. Poles think Obama deserves a second term by a ratio of nearly 5 to 3. In the Czech Republic, the ratio is more than 6 to 1. It was so much easier to characterize whole countries’ attitudes in the old days, when nobody did polls in them!

There are parts of the world where approval rates for Obama have dropped significantly and where America is viewed with suspicion. They include Russia, China and the countries of the Arab world. This would suggest that Obama has not given these countries what they want, thus earning their disfavor. That is precisely what Romney seems to want in his speech—approval from allies and disapproval from adversaries.

And consider the reasons Obama’s ratings are low in the Arab world. The two strongest justifications given by people in every Arab country that was surveyed are, first, that he has not been fair in dealing with the Israeli-­Palestinian issue, and second, that he has used drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go after terrorists. In other words, the reason Obama has lost some of his global popularity is that he is perceived as too pro-Israeli and too hawkish.

Romney has tried to dredge up the ­standard-issue Cold War Republican attack on Democrats: the world is dangerous, our enemies are growing strong, and Obama is weak. The problem is, most Americans recognize that none of this is true. The world is actually quite peaceful right now; our ­adversaries—like Iran—are weak and isolated. China is growing strong but has not used its power to contest America in ­national-security terms. The one enemy Americans recognize and worry about remains al-Qaeda and its affiliated Islamic terrorist groups, and Obama has been relentless in attacking them.

Mitt Romney is a smart man who has had much professional success. But even Republican insiders have admitted to me that he has been strangely amateurish on foreign policy. His campaign, they note, is not staffed by the obvious Republican foreign policy heavyweights—people like Robert Zoellick, Richard Armitage, Richard Haass and Stephen Hadley. As a result, he has blustered about Russia’s being our greatest geopolitical adversary (actually it is a second-rate power), seems willing to start a trade war with China, is vague yet belligerent about Syria and Iran and has gone back and forth on the timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Romney faces a tough problem. President Obama is the first Democrat in nearly 50 years to enter an election with a dramatic advantage in foreign policy. (The last time was Lyndon Johnson vs. Barry Goldwater in 1964.) Unless Romney can craft a smart, strategic alternative, that gap will only get wider.