With the final two presidential debates coming up in the next two weeks, foreign policy will be a key issue in each, though polls show only about 5 percent of the electorate consider the issue a top priority. That’s a disturbing figure because while Americans are warranted in their deep concern about the economy, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the fate of the world may well rest on the mantle of the next American president.
President Barack Obama asks to be judged on his record in foreign affairs, noting his winding down of two costly wars overseas, his aggressive attacks on al-Qaeda (including the elimination of Osama bin Laden), and his efforts to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear arms through increasingly tough sanctions.
He says little about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the two sides are farther apart now than they were four years ago.
Gov. Mitt Romney asserts that the president’s foreign policy has been a failure, with the U.S. leading from behind, not supportive enough of its allies and not tough enough on its adversaries. He often draws attention to the Mideast.
“It’s time to change course in the Middle East,” Romney declared in his major foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute on Monday, which focused on the troubled region, with Israel front and center.
The Republican candidate said he would spend more on the U.S. military, get tougher with Iran and close the “daylight” gap between the U.S. and Israel. “I’ll reaffirm our historic ties to Israel and our abiding commitment to its security,” he said. “The world must never see daylight between our two nations.”
Those are reassuring, comforting words to all those who love Israel. The question is whether they represent a change from the current administration, and the answer depends largely on one’s own political views because Obama has expressed similar sentiments in his public statements to the AIPAC policy conference and on other occasions.
The distinctions between the two men, though, can be seen in the not-so-subtle difference in their attitudes toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.
The ongoing strain in relations between Obama and Netanyahu that have marked the last four years should not have come as a surprise. In 2008, Obama observed that “there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel.”
Clearly, Obama believes that what may be best for Israel is not identical to Netanyahu’s views, whether it involves how best to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms or resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Romney, on the other hand, has enjoyed a strong personal relationship with the Israeli leader, and has made clear that he will follow his lead on Mideast issues affecting Israel.
In his talk this week, Romney, referring to Obama’s “hopes for a safer, freer and more prosperous Middle East allied with us,” said: “Hope is not a strategy.”
But in his now-famous “47 percent” private talk in Florida earlier this year, Romney said “the Palestinians” do not want to make peace with Israel and are “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel” so “you hope for some degree of stability but you recognize that it’s going to remain an unsolved problem…we kick the ball down the field and hope that ultimately, somehow, something will happen and resolve.”
That’s a lot of dependence on hope.
Romney appeared to reverse himself this week in calling for a Palestinian state. But is that just a cover for his politically incorrect feelings about dealing with the Palestinians by ignoring them? That’s what critics say his friend Netanyahu is doing.
We have been vocal in our ongoing criticism of Obama’s handling of various aspects of the Mideast conflict during his tenure, most notably his early, misguided insistence on a settlement freeze that resulted instead in a negotiation freeze, eliminating any meaningful incentive for the Palestinian Authority to come to the table and consider any compromises.
We would like to hear how Obama would handle the standoff in his second term. Would he pursue peace talks, and if so, how? And what would it take for him to call off talks with Tehran and pursue a military option?
Romney has said repeatedly that the U.S. is throwing Israel under the bus. But beyond the troubled personal relationship between the president and the prime minister, officials in Washington and Jerusalem insist that military and strategic cooperation between the two countries is at an all-time high.
How would Romney deal with the Israelis and Palestinians? And what he would do differently in dealing with Iran?
The American people deserve a fuller and richer discussion of these and other major foreign policy concerns. We hope to hear more in the debates from a challenger who sometimes seems to talk out of both sides of his mouth and an incumbent who seemingly pushes for talks, be it on Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as an end in itself.