- By Uri Friedman
Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland.
The Obama campaign is still making hay over Mitt Romney’s characterization of Russia as America’s "number one geopolitical foe," most recently with the movie poster above promoting Senator John Kerry’s dig at the Republican nominee during the Democratic convention. Yet while Romney’s foreign-policy advisors have defended the candidate’s assesment of Russia in the past, Romney and running mate Paul Ryan appeared to back away from the assertion during appearances on the Sunday talk shows over the weekend, instead characterizing Iran as the gravest threat facing the United States.
Take Romney, for example. In 2010, he penned a Washington Post op-ed calling Obama’s New START nuclear arms reduction deal with Russia the president’s "worst foreign-policy mistake." But in an interview with Meet the Press host David Gregory that aired on Sunday, Romney used the same language to describe Obama’s Iran policy. And he didn’t mention the president’s "reset" with Russia even though Gregory referenced the Democratic critique that Romney is trapped in a Cold War mentality:
GREGORY: But [Obama] used some pretty tough words in talking about you, saying you and Paul Ryan are, quote, "New to foreign policy." Want to "take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly." Said you were stuck in a Cold War time warp. Pretty — pretty tough stuff and suggesting you’re not ready on day one to be the commander-in-chief.
ROMNEY: Well, I can certainly look at his record and I think one can say that he’s had some successes and he’s had some failures. And perhaps the biggest failure is as it relates to the greatest threat that America faces and the world faces, which is the nuclear Iran. The president has not drawn us further away from a nuclear Iran and in fact Iran is closer to having a weapon, closer to having nuclear capability than when he took office. This is the greatest failure, in my opinion, of his foreign policy.
Meanwhile, during an interview with Norah O’Donnell for Face the Nation, Paul Ryan characterized Iran as America’s number one geopolitical foe and said Romney hadn’t intended to suggest that Russia deserved that label:
O’DONNELL: Who do you America’s number one enemy is?
RYAN: Well, I think a nuclear Iran is our biggest foreign policy threat today.
O’DONNELL: The reason I ask you that is Mitt Romney was criticized during the Democratic National Convention for saying Russia is without question our number one geopolitical foe. So do you disagree with Mitt Romney?
RYAN: No, I think what he was saying was among the other powers — China and Russia — that Russia stands a great threat.
Look, I think sending our foreign policy decisions to be cleared through the U.N. security council where we’re giving Iran and China — excuse me, Russia and China, veto clout over us, that’s not good policy. So what we have done through our foreign policy for the Obama administration is we’ve increase[d] the clout in the card of Russia and China. I think that was a mistake.
Ryan’s answer is a bit confusing (when he said "card," did he mean "council?"), but the interviews on Sunday suggest that the Romney campaign has decided to emphasize Obama’s failure to curb the Iranian nuclear program through diplomacy, sanctions, and the threat of force, even though the policy differences between the two candidates on Russia are starker than those on Iran.
Ultimately, that’s good politics. A CNN/ORC poll in April found that 48 percent of Americans view Iran as a very serious threat to the United States, while 43 percent believe North Korea poses a very serious threat. Only 11 percent of respondents felt Russia represented a very serious threat, down from 65 percent in 1983 (when the survey asked about the Soviet Union).
Whether or not the public’s perception of the Iranian threat to the United States is accurate, Romney will likely get more mileage talking about spinning centrifuges in Iran than about Vladimir Putin rebuilding the Soviet empire in Russia.