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Foreign policy differences more style than substance

Teachers Talk Politics: Foreign Policy

By Dr. Sam Ewing

As the saying goes, “Events are the politician’s worst enemy.”

Plan as you might, events have a way of frustrating even the best laid plans.

Last month, President Barack Obama was reminded of this maxim as riots spread across the Islamic world and threw a wild card into the presidential race.

Until now both sides have been focused almost exclusively on the economy.

Gov. Romney in particular was hoping to make the race a referendum on the president’s handling of the economy.

In part this reflects the reality of our nation and the continuing economic difficulty we face but it is also a realization that the president enjoys strong support for his handling of foreign affairs.

Typically foreign policy is an area of weakness for Democrats, but president Obama is reaping credit for (among other things) the death of bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders.

Nonetheless, one has to admit that the differences between the two on foreign policy are less substantive than you might suppose.

One area where we find at least an apparent difference is in the matter of U.S. relations with Israel and Iranian nuclear weapons.

Romney has adopted a more vocal pro-Israeli stance and taken a hard line against Iran.

By contrast, President Obama has been (perhaps) less confrontational with Iran (relying upon economic sanctions and clandestine operations).

Meanwhile his relationship with the Israeli government has been extremely contentious.

It hit a new low last month when he avoided meeting with the Israeli prime minister.

This imperfect sympathy with Israel has the potential to swing Jewish votes in the pivotal state of Florida.

It could also lead to difficulties if Israel decided to act on its own to disarm Iran.

Turning next to last month’s Islamic riots, this event revealed another difference between Obama and Romney.

This might once again boil down to style over substance but it could be important to the election nevertheless.

First a little background: A film (generously described as “amateurish”) was posted to YouTube denigrating Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. Motives behind its creation are still unclear but the video became the cause or possibly the pretext for Islamic riots.

The rage found expression primarily against American targets but other western powers were also hit.

Over several days the violence spread from North Africa to the Middle East, the Asian Subcontinent and finally to Indonesia and even Australia.

Sadly, lives were lost, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

In the early hours of the attacks Gov. Romney criticized the U.S. response emanating from the American embassy in Egypt – and by connection, criticized President Obama and his foreign policy.

Without going into all the details, Gov. Romney saw the Tweets coming from the U.S. embassy as confirming a pattern in Obama (as he sees it) to apologize for American values rather than support and defend them.

The Obama administration would later distance itself from the embassy Tweets but it took some hours.

This episode could go one of two ways.

For some the tact and timing of Gov. Romney’s criticism were unfortunate.

He has received heat for not letting events mature before he spoke and possibly making the situation worse.

However, if the Romney campaign can get beyond the question of diplomatic timing, we might well remember this as the day that the notion of Obama as “apologizer in chief” (long a criticism swirling in Republican circles) made it into the mainstream consciousness attached to demonstrable consequences.

If that criticism takes hold it could weaken Obama’s advantage on foreign policy and give Romney traction with voters in a swing state like Virginia.

It is impossible to know what the next several weeks will bring but foreign policy is likely to be back in the debate no matter what.

And that is probably a very good thing.

In our history, you can count on one hand the number of presidents who had the luxury of serving a term without serious issues of state and foreign affairs.

Even presidents that want the focus to be on domestic politics find that it is almost never “just the economy, stupid.”

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