October 14, 2011

FOREIGN POLICY has played a marginal role so far in the Republican presidential contest, squeezed to the side during debates focused on the U.S. economy and by social issues such as immigration. What the candidates have said has sometimes been confusing: Front-runner Mitt Romney, for example, declared in one forum that U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn “as soon as we possibly can” and that the war showed that Americans “cannot fight another nation’s war of independence” — a remark that left analysts wondering whether he was positioning himself to the left of President Obama.

To their credit, Mr. Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. have each now made a significant effort to spell out their positions. The former Massachusetts governor last week named an advisory team studded with well-known conservative policymakers, released a white paper and delivered a speech at the Citadel in South Carolina. Mr. Huntsman, a recently returned ambassador to China who may hope his foreign policy chops will boost his single-digit poll ratings, delivered his own lengthy speech in New Hampshire. For different reasons, however, neither initiative seems likely to have much impact on voters.

Both candidates logically target Mr. Obama’s retreat from U.S. leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere. Mr. Romney is on target in citing Mr. Obama’s bungled diplomacy in the Middle East and contradictory moves in Afghanistan, where he has undermined his own troop surge with publicly announced withdrawal timetables. What is less clear is what Mr. Romney would do differently: His prescriptions for the Arab Spring, Iran, North Korea and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sound a lot like what the Obama administration is doing, or trying to do.

On Afghanistan, Mr. Romney fortunately moves away from his advocacy of quick retreat, but he does not clearly spell out an alternative policy. He says he would “speak with our generals in the field” about how best to draw down U.S. troops; in one interview he suggested the result could be either a speeding-up or a slowing-down of Mr. Obama’s timetable. This will not reassure those who worry about a resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Mr. Romney does promise to “reverse” the Obama administration’s cuts in defense spending and to increase investment in Navy ships and missile defense. But he offers no hint of where the hundreds of billions needed to deliver on that promise would come from, though he proposes trims in the Pentagon bureaucracy.

Mr. Romney speaks correctly but in generalities about the need for U.S. leadership. Apart from defense, his most distinctive proposal is on China: He says he would declare Beijing a currency manipulator on “Day One,” opening the way to retaliatory tariffs. In vowing to get tough on Beijing, Mr. Romney follows previous non-incumbent presidential candidates, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush; upon election, his predecessors backed down rather than ignite a trade war. If his pragmatism and common sense prevail, Mr. Romney would do the same.

In all, the policy Mr. Romney lays out is centrist but unimaginative. It lacks some of the rough edges of the George W. Bush administration — Mr. Romney pledges that “the United States will exercise leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances” — but there are few fresh ideas. In contrast, Mr. Huntsman is relatively bold but decidedly more misguided: His promise to “bring home” U.S. troops so as to rebuild an American “core” he views as “broken” sounds like an updated version of George McGovern’s “Come Home America” campaign of 1972. Americans didn’t buy it then; it would be surprising if GOP primary voters lined up for it now.