MINNEAPOLIS — In a series of speeches, President Obama and his chief political rivals have presented dueling assessments of the administration’s record abroad, with Republicans offering an ominous view of a weak and uncertain America under Obama’s leadership.
The clashing visions, which emerged in speeches Tuesday from Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney before gatherings of military veterans, highlighted what is sure to be a sharp point of contention during the 2012 campaign.
While both sides agree that the economy remains unhealthy, even as they debate what to do about it, there is disagreement over America’s standing in the world after a decade of war.
The debate centers on approach as much as on policy, and in some ways it reverses the critique that Obama leveled against the previous administration. As a candidate in 2008, Obama pledged to repair America’s image abroad, particularly in the Muslim world and among allies in Europe.
Obama believes he has succeeded, in large part by adopting a style of leadership abroad that resembles the one he used as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side — someone who seeks consensus, works with allies and assembles coalitions to achieve shared goals.
His approach to the Libyan revolution, where he encouraged European allies to take the lead in diplomacy and in the months-long military campaign, typified the role he sees for the United States at a time of fiscal strife at home.
But Romney — and, a day earlier, Texas Gov. Rick Perry — has accused Obama of weak, overly cautious leadership. Their approach, although only generally outlined so far, more closely resembles the Bush administration’s suspicion of international alliances and belief that U.S. military and moral strength should be celebrated, even in parts of the world where the United States remains deeply unpopular.
“Have we ever had a president who was so eager to address the world with an apology on his lips and doubt in his heart?” Romney told a convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in San Antonio. “He seems truly confused not only about America’s past but also about its future.”
In his 17-minute speech, Romney offered the clearest outline of his views on foreign affairs since launching his second presidential bid in June. He told nearly 1,000 veterans assembled at the cavernous Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center that “we are united not only by our faith in America, but also our concern for America.”
“Unfortunately, when we look around the world today, we see a muddled picture of America’s foreign policy and our power,” he said.
In his own remarks Tuesday at the American Legion convention in Minneapolis, Obama portrayed the 2 million American troops who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a “9/11 generation” whose “astonishing record of achievement” has helped reshape the globe as a freer, safer place. He compared them to America’s beloved “greatest generation” that served in World War II.
Obama told 6,000 Legion veterans, dressed in blue blazers and military-style caps with service pins, that the 30,000 additional troops he ordered to Afghanistan in 2009 drove the Taliban from its safe havens. And he mentioned a clear victory for his counterterrorism policy.
“A few months ago, our troops achieved our greatest victory yet in the fight against those who attacked us on 9/11 — delivering justice to Osama bin Laden in one of the greatest intelligence and military operations in American history,” the president declared, drawing hearty applause.
Obama campaigned against the Bush administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq, its detention and interrogation policies, and its unilateral approach to some global issues, including climate change and military intervention. His pledge to wind down America’s wars and reinvigorate international institutions to address such shared problems as global warming excited audiences abroad, particularly in Europe.
But Romney is criticizing Obama’s policies in Afghanistan, where the president recently adopted a more accelerated withdrawal timeline than his commanders recommended, and in Libya, where the U.S. military played a supporting role after leading the airstrikes that began the intervention.
He has also taken issue with Obama’s rationale for the intervention, which the president first said was meant to protect Libyan civilians in rebel-held areas from Moammar Gaddafi’s forces. While regime change was not his stated goal, Obama later said that those civilians would probably never be safe with Gaddafi in power.
“When a president sends our men and women into harm’s way, he must first explain their mission, define what it means to be successful, plan for their victorious exit, provide them with the best weapons and armor in the world, and properly care for them when they come home,” Romney said.
Libyan rebels stormed the capital, Tripoli, this month and overthrew Gaddafi, ending his 42-year dictatorship. Obama credited the rebel victory in part to “precision” assistance from U.S. forces.
“America’s military is the best it’s ever been,” he said. “We saw that again, most recently, in the skill and precision of our brave forces who helped the Libyan people finally break free.”
Obama spent the second half of his speech pledging to create jobs for the tens of thousands of U.S. troops returning from the wars.
He said he has directed the Departments of Defense and Veteran Affairs to create a “reverse boot camp” to provide returning troops training in career skills. And he said he has challenged the private sector to create 100,000 jobs for veterans through a proposed tax credit for companies that hire unemployed veterans and another for those that hire wounded veterans.
“When Congress returns from recess, this needs to be at the top of the agenda,” Obama said.
On Monday, speaking at the same convention as Romney, Perry offered the first glimpses of his own foreign policy.
The United States “must renew our commitment of taking the fight to the enemy wherever they are before they strike at home,” Perry said, adding: “We cannot concede the moral authority of our nation to multilateral debating societies, and when our interests are threatened, American soldiers should be led by American commanders.”
He prefaced his comments by talking about his own military service as well as the combat service of his father. Perry was an Air Force pilot in the 1970s, when, he said, he flew aircraft around the globe but was “never called into battle.”
The same could not be said of his father, a tailgunner during World War II who Perry said flew 35 missions over Nazi Germany.
“He helped liberate millions from tyranny,” Perry said. “When he came home, he didn’t seek acclaim or credit. He just wanted to live in peace and freedom, just farm a little corner of land in Paint Creek, Texas.”
Rucker reported from San Antonio. Staff writer Scott Wilson contributed to this report form Washington.