US candidates’ converging foreign policy

Latest debate between Obama and Romney reveals uncanny similarities in global policies, particularly on the Middle East.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will probably not mention this during their debate on Monday night, but the two men agree on a great deal about foreign policy, particularly when it comes to the greater Middle East.

Romney is unlikely to wind down the campaign of US drone strikes and missile strikes, for example, which has killed hundreds of people in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. Nor will he end America’s longstanding support for autocratic regimes in countries like Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain.

There are a few areas of contrast, though it is hard to say how sharp those contrasts will be, because Romney has the challenger’s luxury of issuing vague foreign policy pronouncements.

On Syria, for instance, Romney has accused the president of “failing to lead”. During a major foreign policy address earlier this month at the Virginia Military Institute, he seemed to commit himself to arming the Syrian opposition, something Obama has steadfastly refused to do. But he left a significant caveat.

“I will work with our partners to identify and organise those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets,” Romney said.

“Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran, rather than sitting on the sidelines.”

The line about “working with our partners” suggests that Romney would outsource some of his Syria policy to countries in the Gulf, and to Turkey – as has Obama.

Beyond that, Romney’s Syria policy calls for a campaign of targeted sanctions against Assad’s government and a plan to “prevent the export of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction stockpiles,” both of which reflect current US policy. The details might be different, but the overall objective is the same.

In Egypt, Romney says he will condition US military aid on Cairo maintaining its peace agreement with Israel. This has been American policy since the Carter administration indeed, the whole purpose of the military aid package was to reward Egypt for signing the Camp David Accords.

On Iraq, meanwhile, Romney attacks the president for failing to negotiate a deal that would have kept some US troops in the country past 2011, but offers little in the way of new policy.

And on Afghanistan, that 11-year-old war which is receiving oddly little attention on the campaign trail, the most charitable assessment of Romney’s policy is that he does not have one. He wants to stick to the current timetable, which calls for US troops to withdraw by the end of 2014, but says he will delay the withdrawal if advised by commanders on the ground.

Romney has promised a more muscular policy towards Iran, promising to “put the leaders of Iran on notice” that he will take military action if they do not curtail their nuclear programme. In a media appearance on Sunday, he declined to say whether he would be open to one-on-one talks with the Iranian leadership.

Beyond that, he has pledged to increase economic sanctions on Iran and bolster military co-operation with Israel, both of which Obama has already done.

Perhaps the clearest contrast in regional policy would come in Romney’s relations with Israel and Palestine. He has known Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for decades, since they worked together in Boston, and Romney has accused Obama of putting “great strain” in the relationship between the two world leaders.

“The president explicitly stated that his goal was to put ‘daylight’ between the United States and Israel,” Romney said in his speech. “And he has succeeded.”

His policy on the conflict echoes longstanding US policy: the desire for “a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel”.

But Romney has also vowed to reduce financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if it continues to seek recognition at the UN, or to form a unity government with Hamas.

He also promises to oppose any “unilateral attempt to decide issues that are designated for final negotiations” carried out by the Palestinians.

But he does not make the same threat to the Israeli government, leaving the door open for the continued growth of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank (essentially a unilateral Israeli decision on borders).

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