Obama, Romney differ more in style than in substance.
Mitt Romney's passport was stamped in three countries on a trip intended to burnish his foreign policy credentials.
We were reminded that the United States has a "special relationship" with England, a strengthening relationship with Poland, and a critical relationship with Israel. And voters learned that the foreign policy differences between Romney and President Obama are more about style than substance.
A key test is Iran, whose potential nuclear-weapons program Israel rightly considers an existential threat. Obama agrees, and he's rallied rational members of the international community to impose remarkably harsh sanctions on multiple levels of the ruling theocracy.
Getting agreement from foreign leaders was possible in part because of Obama's much-criticized initial willingness to engage in a diplomatic dialogue with Iran. While that outreach was rebuffed, it gave Obama the moral high ground. And if diplomacy fails, Obama has repeatedly said that all options, including military ones, remain on the table.
The punishing sanctions, diplomatic isolation and military options are also all part of Romney's approach to Iran. Indeed, in the past he has often used language strikingly similar to Obama's, while his campaign trail rhetoric suggests a hawk-dove divide that simply doesn't exist.
"If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. If you elect me as president, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon," Romney said late last year.
That may be an effective campaign bite, but it wrongly suggests Obama has been soft on Iran. In fact, Ehud Barak, Israel's defense minister, told CNN on Monday, "...I should tell you honestly that this administration under President Obama is doing, in regard to our security, more than anything that I can remember in the past."
It's actually not security, but diplomacy, that Obama needs to work on. His first term approach failed. In particular, the public pressure applied to Israel's leaders regarding the vexing issue of freezing settlement construction on disputed land did not thaw the Mideast peace process, but instead iced over Obama's relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Obama has to change tactics, if not strategy. Personal relationships matter. So do public ones: Just as Netanyahu has successfully pressed his case to the U.S. Congress and public, Obama should engage Israelis directly. Inexplicably, as president he has not yet visited Israel, which is a lost opportunity for the citizens of both nations.
For his part, Romney told CNN that settlement policy should be "discussed in private." There are many routes to diplomatic success, and given Romney's previous personal and professional relationship with Netanyahu, private dialogue may be more successful.
But Romney has to realize that unwavering does not mean unquestioning: Friendship is more than promising to move our embassy to Jerusalem. It also requires telling hard truths, including that just like Palestine, Israel must make concessions in order to secure a lasting peace.
And Romney needs to recognize that it takes two willing parties to sign a peace treaty. The Palestinians must be engaged, not enraged, as many were on Monday when Romney attributed cultural differences, and not the Israeli occupation, as the factor explaining the stark differences in living standards between Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Among those angered was prominent Palestinian politician Saeb Erekat, who called Romney's remarks "a racist statement." A Romney aide countered that it was "a completely manufactured story," but as usual the campaign's (and the news media's) prism was the presidential campaign, not the Mideast peace process. If elected president, Romney will need to be far more strategic with his public comments.
Still, for those few voters prioritizing foreign policy in this pocketbook election, the differences between the candidates on Israel are relatively minor. That's appropriate. The prospect of yet another Mideast war is so grave that consistency in the approach to Iran is welcome.
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