Rational Security

Fight Night

How Barack Obama and Mitt Romney measure up on the seven foreign policy issues that really matter.

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

National security and foreign policy finally come front-and-center Monday night. So it is high time to assess the candidates’ relative strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Some small hints about where they stand were dropped in the Ryan-Biden undercard matchup — and Libya was discussed, though clumsily, in Obama-Romney II — but the real action is only now heating up.

Here are the seven most salient issues — in rough order of public interest — and how the candidates match up:

Defense spending

Obama: Features a solid left jab, aiming at incremental budget cuts. He also enjoys better footwork, intended to help make the military nimbler and more networked.

Romney: Has a strong "no cut" uppercut, and promises to sustain, even increase, the Pentagon budget. "I want America to be so strong no one will ever think of attacking us."

Analysis: Substantial advantage to Obama. Our current economic straits make reductions in defense spending mandatory. And a shift from the Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force" to a more supple approach is long overdue.


Obama: Emphasizes a massive training regimen for Afghans who have little faith in their weak, corrupt central government.

Romney: Agrees with much of Obama’s Afghan policy, but thinks that Obama’s declaration of no mas in 2014 allows the Taliban to rope-a-dope us until we leave.

Analysis: Slight edge to Romney for realizing that we shouldn’t telegraph our final punches. But neither candidate reflects an awareness of the futility of centralized nation-building in Afghanistan, a country where it’s the "edges" that truly matter.


Obama: Has deftly avoided precipitate intervention in the fight, while at the same time making clear that Assad regime atrocities or use of chemical weapons will not be tolerated.

Romney: A bit too eager to mix it up by arming the insurgents. Wants to select the "right ones" to support, but there may be no Mr. Right in this conflict.

Analysis: Slight advantage to Obama. His cautious approach is laudable, but it is ever more difficult to watch the suffering of innocent Syrians.


Obama: Trying to prevent nuclear proliferation by employing a variety of tactics against Tehran. Relying on economic sanctions, (alleged) covert cyber attack, last-resort threats of the use of force — and some diplomacy as well.

Romney: Seeks the same outcome as Obama, would employ much the same approach, but more likely to emphasize force, perhaps even allow Israel in as a "ringer."

Analysis: Edge to Obama, as he is more willing to keep trying for a diplomatic solution. Romney’s posture is a bit too combative.

Al Qaeda

Obama: KO’d bin Laden with commandos, and has great "reach" with drone strikes, from Waziristan to Yemen, and beyond.

Romney: Effective counter-punching with observations that al Qaeda remains on its feet and fighting on several fronts.

Analysis: Even.


Obama: Helped promote rebel takedown of Qaddafi with an innovative, cost-effective approach to helping others be the principal agents of their own liberation. But after-the-bout chaos, including the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, is a serious blot on the record.

Romney: Missed with a roundhouse punch at consular security policy and White House confusion in Obama-Romney II, but might still connect by depicting the Benghazi debacle as a symptom of a larger American policy failure to follow through post-Qaddafi.

Analysis: Very slight edge to Romney, but exploitable into something bigger if he can jab more effectively at the administration’s response to the 9/11/12 attack, and then call into question American inaction in the aftermath of regime change in Libya.


Obama: Ducked the possibility of a return bout with residual insurgent forces by removing all U.S. forces, leaving behind slow-simmering societal unrest that is bound to boil over.

Romney: Ever combative, wanted to keep punching, even with reduced U.S. presence.

Analysis: Significant advantage to Romney. There are both practical and ethical reasons for keeping Iraq from going up in flames again. Al Qaeda fighters have returned, make mischief there, and also filter into Syria from Iraq. As to the failure to negotiate an acceptable status-of-forces agreement that would have kept some American troops in country, this too hurts President Obama.

These are not the only foreign policy matters, but they matter most. North Korea is, for now, quiescent, and Pakistan remains a "frenemy." And don’t expect much new ground to be broken on foreign trade, as each of the candidates wants it to be "free and fair," even though insisting on both makes neither possible. Also, President Obama may try to land a punch about Romney’s description of Russia as our "No. 1 geopolitical foe." This would be a mistake, as Romney can point to Russia’s great economic and military resources, and its steadily growing opposition to a range of American policies. Further, Romney could counterpunch by pointing out that Obama’s "pivot to the Pacific" will neglect the current arc of conflict in the Middle East and alienate China, a major trading partner.

To summarize the strategic "tale of the tape," each candidate holds the edge in different issue areas, and their divergent views, while often subtle, still reflect considerable sharpness. Governor Romney is likely to do much better than expected of someone with so little foreign policy experience. Obama-Romney III has the potential to be a crackling debate from the outset to the finish.

The betting line: Even.

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