The Post is taking a comprehensive look at the positions of President Obama and Mitt Romney on several key issues. For an interactive experience including polling, quotes and the ability to choose which candidate better represents your views, visit the Post’s Issue Engine.
There’s an old saying that presidential elections are about peace and prosperity. When one or the other is absent, the incumbent usually is in trouble. But if President Obama is vulnerable this year, it’s because of the economy, not foreign policy.
That’s the case despite the fact that the country has been at war for more than a decade and the president is on the defensive over an attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Libya.
National security issues long have favored Republican presidential candidates. For most of Obama’s presidency, his approval ratings on the issue have trumped those he receives on the economy. Mitt Romney has his differences with Obama but hasn’t gained politically by talking about them.
Neither candidate spends much time on the trail discussing national security. The president reminds audiences that he ended the Iraq war and ordered the mission that killed Osama bin Laden. Romney characterizes Obama as a weak leader who has lowered the United States’ profile worldwide. Lately, he has tried to seize on the attack in Libya to press his case.
For the majority of Americans, national security and foreign policy are mostly afterthoughts as they weigh their choices this fall. But as with domestic policy, the two candidates project distinctly different visions. Obama has adopted a collaborative, we’re-all-in-this-together approach to world affairs; Romney says he wants to restore American preeminence.
— Dan Balz
Here are Obama and Romney’s positions on foreign policy, broken down by subject:
Obama has overseen the most severe economic sanctions in Iran’s history in his administration’s efforts to prevent the Islamic republic from developing a nuclear weapon. He has said he would take “no options off the table” to achieve that goal, an implicit threat of military action. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Obama has urged Israel — which considers a nuclear-armed Iran a threat to its existence — not to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities unilaterally, insisting that there is still time for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. His approach has drawn criticism from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has called on Obama to publicly define “red lines” that would trigger an attack. Obama has resisted those entreaties and repeated his commitment to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
The president’s position is based on a belief that the sanctions against Iran will force the country to accept a compromise to curb its nuclear activities. Several rounds of sanctions have squeezed Iran’s economy, particularly the all-important oil sector, and greatly undercut the value of its currency. The most severe measures took effect this past summer.
International nuclear talks with Iran are stalled. No firm dates for new negotiations have been set, and analysts say no breakthrough is likely until after the November election.
Romney has said that it would be “unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon” and indicated that he would use economic sanctions and diplomacy to pressure the country to abandon its nuclear ambitions. His policies closely resemble those of the Obama administration, but his rhetoric has at times been more heated.
Romney has stopped short of asserting that he would support a unilateral military strike by Israel, but a top adviser has said the candidate would respect the Jewish state’s right to such action.
He has indicated that his “red line” for the use of force against Iran is distinct from that of the Obama administration. Although the president has said he would not permit Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, Romney has said he would not allow the country to develop a nuclear “capability.”
Iran has enough enriched uranium to build at least one nuclear weapon, possibly more, but would first have to develop a warhead and delivery system.
Romney says he would put a permanent aircraft-carrier task force in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran.
He faults Obama for not deterring Iranian terrorism, such as the plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. He also has criticized Obama for not providing assistance to Iranian protesters during the 2009 Green Revolution.
In deciding in late 2009 to escalate U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, Obama went against many Democrats and sided with the military. He increased the number of U.S. troops from just under 50,000 to about 100,000, coupling the rise with a promise to begin a gradual drawdown in 2011. Obama set a withdrawal date of 2014, earlier than some military commanders wanted.
The president’s position was based on a belief that the longest war the United States has fought could be ended “responsibly” by using the surge troops to weaken the Taliban before turning over security to Afghan authorities. He ramped up drone attacks on al-Qaeda leaders and other militants hiding in northwest Pakistan, managing to kill about two-thirds of the terrorist organization’s leadership.
A key element of the Afghan transition has been the stepped-up training of the military and police, with a goal of a standing force of about 352,000. The numbers are being met, but a recent increase in insider attacks — in which Afghan security forces have targeted U.S. and other international troops — has raised questions about the effectiveness of the transition.
Obama’s biggest victory in the Afghan war occurred across the border in Pakistan. In 2011, he ordered a joint operation by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Early on, Romney said U.S. forces should remain in Afghanistan until American military commanders say the job is done.
The former governor said in 2009 that the United States should “nurture democracy and human rights all over the world.” During a foreign policy debate that November, he said that the United States should draw the Afghans toward modernity, and that “we don’t want to literally pull up stakes and run out of town after the extraordinary investment that we’ve made.”
Romney later said the United States should not “go off and try to fight a war of independence for another nation.” He has said that the time has come for Afghan troops to earn and maintain their freedom, but he insists that Obama’s decision to withdraw earlier than many ground commanders advised gave the Taliban a reason to wait until the American departure before launching large-scale operations aimed at overthrowing the government in Kabul.
And Romney has said that he would have reached out more to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom he met on a trip to Kabul in early 2010. He said he would consult with him “day to day.”
Faced with a massive federal deficit, Obama announced plans in January for a leaner military that will tighten its overall spending while investing more heavily in Special Operations forces, drone aircraft and cybersecurity. A new military strategy he endorsed also emphasizes widening the U.S. security presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
The president’s budget, in line with the 2011 Budget Control Act, reduces defense spending next year for the first time since 1998 and slows previously planned budget growth over the next nine years. The Army and the Marine Corps will be cut by 100,000 troops over the next five years. Under the administration’s budget, the United States will invest almost $200 billion to modernize the nation’s nuclear weapons building complex and strategic submarines, bombers and delivery systems. But overall military spending will fall from the current level of 4.5 percent of estimated gross domestic product to 2.9 percent in 2017.
The Budget Control Act mandates about $600 billion in across-the-board defense cuts over the next decade, starting next year, if lawmakers cannot come up with a plan to trim the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion. The president and Congress have said they are exploring ways to avert the automatic cuts through budget savings or additional revenue.
Romney has vowed that he would maintain defense spending at a minimum of 4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product and that he would increase active-duty military personnel by 100,000 troops.
The former governor has said he would reinvest in weapons systems. He has pledged to step up the Navy’s shipbuilding rate, from nine vessels a year to 15, and restart the production of Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor stealth fighter, which Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates ended in 2009.
Romney said he would call on NATO allies to devote 2 percent of their gross domestic product to security spending — a level met by only three of the 28 nations today.
Promising to roll back what he calls Obama’s “deep and arbitrary cuts” to defense spending, Romney said he would spend more on missile defense and the Navy. For example, he said he would build 15 new ships a year, including three submarines.
To cover the increased costs, the candidate has said he would seek unspecified savings throughout the Pentagon budget, identifying inefficiencies in the Defense Department’s civilian workforce and instituting greater competition in procurement processes.
Obama has overseen the expansion of covert counterterrorism operations, and has authorized an increase in the number of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen. Two-thirds of al-Qaeda’s leaders have been killed during his administration, and most of the group’s fighters have been driven out of Afghanistan.
The president gave the orders that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. Nearly four months later, Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born propagandist and key al-Qaeda figure in Yemen, was killed in a U.S. drone strike.
U.S. officials have said that, despite al-Qaeda’s losses in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some of the group’s affiliates are gaining strength. Members of a group called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been linked to the attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, although there is no indication that the group directed the assault.
In one of his first official acts, Obama signed an order that limits U.S. interrogators to using only techniques outlined in the Army Field Manual. The decision effectively banned torture and practices such as waterboarding.
The president has been unable to shut down the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in part because of restrictions from Congress. The White House says he still intends to close it.
Romney has said that he is comfortable with the use of drones to strike suspected terrorists in Pakistan.
He advocates maintaining the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying that he does not want the inmates on U.S. soil and does not support giving them access to civilian courts.
The former governor has said that he would not authorize the torture of terrorism suspects, but he said he would not be bound by the restrictions in the Army Field Manual. He said he does not think waterboarding constitutes torture.
Romney called the Sept. 11 strike on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, a terrorist attack. His campaign and various surrogates have criticized President Obama and administration officials for what they say are mixed signals about the nature of the assault. They say a clear explanation is needed.
Romney says the attack in Benghazi and anti-American protests should not be considered random incidents. Rather, he says, they are expressions of a larger struggle between tyranny and democracy in which Obama and his administration have not exerted the American leadership necessary to influence world events in the right direction. Not acting, Romney says, has cost the United States new friends and worried old friends.
In June 2009, Obama delivered a major speech in Cairo in which he promised “to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims.”
He asserted that persuading the Palestinians to renounce violence and the Israelis to stop building settlements would open the way for talks to end a conflict that has damaged U.S. relations with Arab countries. His efforts to restart peace talks, however, foundered when the Israelis refused to halt settlement construction and the Palestinians did not join peace talks when they had the chance.
In early 2011, as uprisings against autocratic rulers spread across Arab countries, Obama said the United States would help promote transitions to democracy but declined to commit U.S. military forces.
When Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi threatened to crush protesters with massive force, Obama sought a unified international response that contributed to NATO’s military support of the opposition movement. The rebels deposed and killed Gaddafi. In Syria, Obama has resisted calls from opposition groups to intervene militarily.
Obama has appealed for tolerance and calm in response to protests across the region over a YouTube video that defames the prophet Muhammad and he vowed to seek justice for those responsible for the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya.
Romney has expressed support for the transition to democracy across the Middle East, but he has warned that extremists and groups backed by Iran are trying to take advantage of the turmoil. To continue receiving U.S. foreign assistance, he said, Egypt must honor its peace treaty with Israel and protect the rights of its own religious minorities.
He has expressed support for arming the opposition in Syria, but he has not suggested sending U.S. military forces into the country. Like Obama, however, he has said he would send U.S. troops to Syria if necessary to prevent the use or spread of that country’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Romney has said that Israel is the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East and has called it “a beacon of democracy and freedom in the region.” He has said that the tumult in the Middle East has increased Israel’s security risks and offered support for its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Romney argues that the key to lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians is a strong and secure Israel.
Romney found himself on the defensive for early criticism of a statement issued by the U.S. Embassy in Egypt in response to protests over the YouTube video. He responded by criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the protests and the investigation of the death of J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador to Libya.
Vice President Biden: A former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden has helped shape Obama’s foreign policy positions. He argued unsuccessfully for a shift in the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in 2009 and the adoption of a smaller military footprint.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton: Clinton has traveled extensively and been credited with loyally delivering Obama’s messages. In 2009, she joined then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in pushing for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
John O. Brennan:
A former CIA official, Brennan has used his position as the president’s chief counterterrorism adviser to shape the global campaign against al-Qaeda and affiliated extremist groups.
Thomas E. Donilon: A lawyer and Washington insider, Donilon succeeded Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser in 2010. He has played a primary role in orchestrating the administration’s response to the Arab Spring.
Richard Williamson: After working for three Republican presidents dating to Ronald Reagan, Williamson has emerged as Romney’s aggressive point man in criticizing Obama’s foreign policy.
Michael V. Hayden: A retired Air Force general and former head of the CIA and the National Security Agency, Hayden was considered a supporter of the CIA’s tough interrogation techniques. Since leaving government in 2009, he has warned against a war with Iran.
John Lehman: Since serving as secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, Lehman has been a national security stalwart for Republicans. Widely regarded as a neoconservative, he was an early advocate of the war in Iraq.
A former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, Senor is a specialist on the Middle East who began advising Romney on foreign policy issues during his 2008 presidential campaign. He is regarded as a strong supporter of Israel.
— Douglas Frantz, Jason Ukman and Cameron Barr