July 27, 2012

The itinerary for the overseas trip that Mitt Romney is taking — Britain, Poland and Israel — is brilliantly chosen. These countries contrast greatly with candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 foreign tour, which included stops in Afghanistan and Jordan. That journey aimed to show that he would strengthen America’s bonds with countries that aren’t always our staunchest allies — and that Obama was the opposite of President George W. Bush. Huge crowds swooned over Obama in Paris and Berlin, a reception that was a boon to his campaign at home.

The former Massachusetts governor, however, neither seeks nor generates this sort of delirium. He is a sober man who promises reliable management and a foreign policy that recognizes that the world is beset with dangers to America’s welfare and liberty.

Thanks to Romney’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Reno, Nev., on Tuesday, we now have the broad outlines of how his foreign policy would differ from Obama’s. There would be a break, the Republican candidate indicated, from policies that have “exposed the military to cuts that no one can justify, compromised our national security secrets and, in dealings with other nations, given trust where it is not earned, insult where it is not deserved and apology where it is not due.”

Romney is an old-fashioned, unstylish man whose views hark back to a time when America was confident in itself and less worried about the judgments of other nations. We have grown anxious in the past decade or so, seeing our country in the mirror held up beyond our shores. There is a yearning for that self-confidence. And Romney promises to call back those older, simpler American verities.

Just as Obama sought to distance himself from Bush’s legacy, Romney’s overseas itinerary is meant to draw a contrast with the current president. Israel, Poland and Britain are resolutely pro-American societies, choices that play it safe politically and suggest that a Romney presidency would as well.

The “special relationship” with Britain calls for no commentary; this is the Anglo-Saxon world, as it was once unapologetically called. Campaigns don’t always follow the script, of course. Romney’s gaffe Wednesday about potential troubles at the London Olympics is a reminder that, even when dealing with close allies, a few ill-chosen words can ruffle feathers.

Israel is of the West but not in it, a besieged democracy. Obama has not visited there since his 2008 trip, and Israelis have wondered about his fidelity to their country.

Poland, too, imparts meaning: Its people have paid dearly for their liberty, daring to defy the Soviet Union and casting their fate with the West. Poland still stands sentry against Russia. And Romney’s previous characterization of Russia as the United States’ “number one geopolitical foe” is music to Polish ears.

And Poland has had its own disappointment with Obama: Bush proposed a missile-defense system to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic. Obama has reconfigured it, proposing a system more acceptable to Russia and, he contends, more effective in warding off potential missile attacks from Iran and North Korea.

Before his VFW remarks, Romney was largely reticent on foreign policy, and his campaign concentrated on the economy. But he is not running for Treasury secretary. Even in a time of economic distress and high unemployment, foreign policy cannot be ignored.

The Obama campaign has made much of the president’s presumed mastery of that domain. In 2008, he promised that he would bring the war in Iraq to an end, and he has done so. Osama bin Laden and American-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki have been hunted down and killed on Obama’s watch.

In his own speech to the VFW on Monday, Obama trumpeted his record on fighting terrorism. He had made it a priority, he said, “to take out the terrorists who had attacked us on 9/11. . . . Since I took office, we’ve worked with our allies and our partners to take out more top al-Qaeda leaders than any time since 9/11.”

Presidential campaigns are, of course, not about truth. And a candidate’s ambitious promises are generally cast aside once he assumes the burdens of office. As a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, it should be recalled, promised to close the missile gap with the Soviet Union. But for the United States, there was no gap to close. It was the Soviets who were at a huge disadvantage, a paltry three scores of missiles for an American arsenal of more than 2,000. In the same vein, candidate Obama vowed to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, repair “brand America” abroad, drain anti-Americanism from the Islamic world and build trust between Pakistan and the United States.

But these promises have been largely forgotten in the exercise of power. Guantanamo is still open, and anti-Americanism in the Islamic world did not dissipate when Bush left the White House. In a supreme note of irony, the Pew Global Attitudes Project, which was once held up as proof of Bush’s poor standing in foreign lands, recently bore bad tidings for Obama:

“In a number of strategically important Muslim nations,” the June report says, “America’s image has not improved during the Obama presidency. In fact, America’s already low 2008 ratings have slipped even further in Jordan and Pakistan.”

The Romney campaign is not out to win hearts and minds in Karachi and Cairo; that sort of public diplomacy is of no interest to the candidate and his bid for the presidency.

“I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced,” Romney said Tuesday, emphasizing American exceptionalism — probably because Obama has often equivocated about it.

“I believe in American exceptionalism,” the president said in France in 2009, “just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” The world was changing, Obama observed; nations the world over were contending for influence, and no single power could deem itself superior to others.

This difference is of no small importance. Ideology has been played down in Obama’s foreign policy. By the early signs, there would be more of it under Romney. But continuity would probably carry the day on Afghanistan and Iran.

“As president,” Romney said Tuesday, “my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014.” Obama has given up on his early view that Afghanistan could be reformed. We are headed for the exits, whoever wins in November.

Iran has frustrated American presidents since its 1979 revolution. Neither carrots nor threats of military action have altered the behavior of Tehran’s theocracy. “Sanctions must be enforced without exception, cutting off the regime’s sources of wealth,”Romney asserted Tuesday.

That view comes directly from Obama’s playbook. After his early infatuation with the idea of “engaging” Iran, entertaining the illusion that he could succeed where other presidents had failed, Obama has become a realist. By now, he has recognized that the ruling mullahs are bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and have no interest in accommodation with the United States. Romney is without illusions about Iran, but he, too, would not take up the sword against the theocracy. The American people show no taste for a new war in the Persian Gulf.

Under Romney, would there be a difference on the “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians? The tone might improve, as the bonds between Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are strong; in contrast, there is an obvious estrangement between Obama and the Israeli leader. But that conflict will not yield to an American president’s power. From Harry Truman till the present, that primordial struggle has frustrated U.S. leaders. No matter how close the U.S.-Israeli relationship is, the United States cannot dictate the terms of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Any grand historical accommodation must be the work of the protagonists themselves.

The late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington once sketched three visions of the United States’ place in the world: nationalist, cosmopolitan and imperial. In the nationalist view, America defends her interests in the world and marks ideological borders and differences with other nations. In the cosmopolitan view, the foreign world and globalization reshape America, erasing the differences that separate it from other countries. In the imperial vision, America remakes the world by remaking foreign lands.

An imperial push can’t be sustained; the United States lacks the resources and the drive for such grand ambitions. So we are down to a more realistic distinction. Obama embodies the cosmopolitan aspiration, and Romney the nationalist idea. We have already seen Obama’s worldview at work; it probably wouldn’t change in a second term. Romney’s stewardship would dawn without trumpets and drums. It would have the sobriety of Gerald Ford’s and George H.W. Bush’s leadership. But there would be an ideological edge, illustrated in Romney’s VFW address: “Like a watchman in the night, we must remain at our post — and keep guard of the freedom that defines and ennobles us and our friends.”

This is not only good prose. Compared with Obama’s ideas, it is a different view of America.

outlook@washpost.com

Fouad Ajami, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Syrian Rebellion.”

Read more from Outlook:

Romney’s tax returns, Obama’s birth certificate and the end of trust

Is Romney’s Mormonism fair game?
Romney can win with Santorum’s playbook

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