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The Romney Foreign Policy Team's Mission Impossible

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So who's got the worst job on Mitt Romney's campaign team? My pick: the head of his national security brain trust, former World Bank chief Robert Zoellick, followed by Romney's lead foreign policy speechwriter (whoever that is).

Why? Because crafting a critique of Barrack Obama's foreign policy and explaining to Americans how Romney will have a better one (more effective, more appealing to them) resembles a Mission Impossible.

Romney's domestic policy folks have it easier. They can make a case that could get some traction. Romney has already, a la Ronald Reagan, been asking voters whether they are better off now than four years ago. This query could strike a chord. Unemployment remains high (8.3 percent). The economic recovery has been anemic. Polls reveal persistent pessimism about job prospects and the economic outlook more generally.

Sure, the president can point to the mess George W. Bush handed him, but after having governed for almost a full term, he can't do too much of that with sounding like a whiner. Yes, the Democrats will attack the Republicans' favor-the-rich tax cuts, plans for a voucher system for Medicare, etc., but Obama's team knows that the economy is the one issue on which he's vulnerable.

Foreign policy is a different story. How will Romney's team make the case that the president has been a failure on that front? Voters pay attention when the country is at war. But Obama has fulfilled his pledge to end the war in Iraq, and his plan to withdraw American combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 is already underway.

These two wars have cost over a trillion dollars to date: close to $807 billion for Iraq and nearly $562 billion for Afghanistan -- and the bills keep mounting, even for Iraq because of post-war commitments. The final tally taking into account follow-on costs, such as interest payments and the care of maimed veterans, could approach $4 trillion by 2020. And of course there's the human cost: approximately 2,107 American soldiers have died in operations in and around Afghanistan; for Iraq, the number is more than twice that: approximately 4,486. Americans soured on the Iraq war toward the end of Bush's second term and most want out of Afghanistan. So a "cut-and-run" critique on Afghanistan by Romney won't wash. Worse, it would imply that he thinks we should keep fighting a war most people think is unwinnable. It will also make it even harder for him to sell himself a fiscal conservative -- already a tough sell.

Romney has hammered Obama for abandoning Israel. In his speech to the Republican convention he accused him of throwing Israel "under the bus." But what's the evidence for that? Has Obama truly twisted Israel's arm, forcing it to dismantle a single West Bank settlement, or even to stop constructing new ones? No. Has he cut economic or military aid? No again. He hasn't done what Israeli hawks, but not Israelis as a majority, want, which is to attack Iran's nuclear installations. But most Americans aren't eager for him to do that: they know bombing Iran would initiate a chain on unpredictable events, none of which would be positive. Obama's tough sanctions strategy hasn't stopped Tehran's nuclear program, but look for concrete ideas about on Romney would (really) do differently. You won't find them.

The Republican Party's most prominent foreign policy hands, notably Senator John McCain, have excoriated the president for not helping the anti-Assad resistance in Syria. They favor establishing a no-flight zone, creating sanctuaries and providing arms. Here again, there's no proof that the president's popularity has been reduced because he hasn't taken these actions. Most Americans are leery that any one of them could place the country on a slippery slope. While they're appalled by the savagery of Assad's assault -- estimates of the number of people killed, mostly civilians, run as high as 20,000 -- they're not eager to become enmeshed in another conflict and are unsure about the political program of what is a heterogeneous Syrian opposition. On Syria, the president's caution mirrors that of most Americans.

Then there's the "leading-from-behind" charge. It featured in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's speech to the convention and dates back to Obama's response to the Libyan uprising. There, Obama navigated opposing currents in his administration, avoiding the level of intervention that some advisers favored while heeding the warnings of others that he risked getting sucked into what might prove a protracted war. Obama took the lead in establishing the UN-authorized no-flight zone, but then quickly handed off to America's NATO partners. It took months for Qadhafi to fall, but fall he did. Has Obama's handling of the Libyan war upset the public? Hardly.

What about Romney's claim that Obama has allowed Russia, which he calls America's "number one geopolitical foe" (whatever that means), to run riot? There are three problems with this accusation. First, not even the Republican Party's foreign policy luminaries (Henry Kissinger, or even Rice, herself a Russia expert), let alone most voters, believe Russia poses the biggest threat to the country; that's because it's an absurd proposition. Second, Romney/Ryan won't be able to show voters any instances in which Russia has trampled on vital American interests. Third, when it comes to foreign policy challenges, Russia ranks low on most people's list.

Has Obama been ineffective against terrorism? Well, there's been no 9/11-style attack. Osama bin Laden is dead. Obama's drone strikes against terrorist redoubts in Afghanistan and Pakistan (and elsewhere) have exceeded Bush's by a factor of five.

Would Romney be tougher on China? How exactly, at what cost, and at what risk? Would he boost defense spending big time (he thinks Obama hasn't spent enough) to bulk up against Beijing? If yes, how would he then reduce overall spending without slashing social programs further?

There's another thing: most voters just aren't focused on foreign policy. The Republicans know this. The New York Times presented a word-by-word analysis of speeches given at the Republican convention (what offense did the person who got that assignment commit?). Those relating to foreign policy accounted for the smallest proportion by far.

My point is not that Obama's foreign policy has been flawless, or even a particular compelling (I don't think it has been, but that's a subject for another piece). It's that Romney's people don't have a lot to work with to present a sensible, substantive alternative. Part of the reason, though neither those who back Romney nor those who support Obama will admit it, is that Obama's foreign policy hasn't been all that different from George W. Bush's.