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been confusing: Front-runner Mitt Romney, for example, declared in one forum that U.S. troops in Afghanistan should be withdrawn ”as soon as we possibly can” and that the war showed that Americans ”cannot fight another nation’s war of independence” — a remark that left analysts wondering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, 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. 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 Obama’s retreat from U.S. leadership in the Middle East and elsewhere. Romney is on target in citing 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 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, Romney fortunately moves away from his advocacy of quick retreat, but he does not clearly spell out an alternative policy.