The Republican Party is divided like never before on the issue of U.S. foreign policy, with rifts over foreign engagement, Pentagon budgeting and the efficacy of diplomacy and international institutions. This article is the first in a series examining some of the key figures and movements within the GOP foreign policy establishment and the conservative press.
WASHINGTON -- Republican frontrunner Mitt Romney may hammer President Barack Obama as a weak commander-in-chief, but the incumbent president has inoculated himself against the charge that he is another Jimmy Carter.
Obama, a Democrat, green-lighted the May 2 assassination of Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda's leader. He approved aggressive U.S. military involvement in Libya, which led to the defeat and death of that north African country's dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. He is overseeing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of this year and is moving forward with a significant drawdown in Afghanistan by the end of 2012.
On Monday, retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark lauded Obama's record at a Washington press conference.
"Keeping America safe and secure is the solemn duty of any president -- and especially in the context of multiple wars, it is an intense, 24-hour a day, 365-day a year challenge," Clark said. "It is a duty President Obama has executed, in many ways, brilliantly."
Romney aides acknowledge if the former Massachusetts governor becomes the Republican nominee, it will be difficult for him to draw foreign policy contrasts with the current commander-in-chief.
But there is one issue on which the Romney campaign believes Obama is vulnerable: Iran.
In fact, the campaign recently decided to make Iran the centerpiece of their foreign policy strategy, believing it to be the most sensible point of attack, as well as a potent counterpoint to the inevitable Obama campaign boasts about bin Laden and Libya.
"Iran is a unique kind of threat," said Daniel Senor, one of Romney's close foreign policy advisers, in an interview conducted over the phone and via e-mail. "It directly and unambiguously threatens core American interests: the security of the American homeland, the security of our access to vital resources in the Gulf and the security of America's close ally, Israel."
Campaigns often have a slogan that encapsulates their foreign policy stance. For the Romney campaign, Iran is the bumper sticker. Their argument on almost every aspect of foreign policy -- China is a clear exception, because it is in a different part of the world and presents a unique set of challenges -- flows from the premise that Obama's failure to slow or stop Tehran's steady march toward a nuclear weapon has made the world more dangerous.
"The administration's sanctions policies are unlikely to stop Iran's progress toward acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran is unlikely to enter serious negotiations toward a resolution of this problem," Senor said. "As we've learned from the [International Atomic Energy Agency] report, the overall trajectory will almost certainly not change."
The IAEA, the United Nations' nuclear weapons watchdog, reported earlier this month what many already suspected or assumed: Iran appears to have continued work on nuclear weapons over the last several years, despite their statements that they sought only nuclear energy.
That report, combined with accusations by the U.S. government that Iran was plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. on American soil, have drawn attention to the Iranian threat in an election cycle dominated by concerns about the economy and joblessness.
The IAEA report also undercut the impact of news reports from Tehran a week earlier in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted that international sanctions are hurting his country, pleading with parliament not to fire one of his top ministers over an embezzlement scandal.
The Obama administration on Monday announced a new round of sanctions against Iran's petrochemical and financial industries, with Canada, Britain and France all announcing unilateral sanctions of their own. And a Romney campaign white paper in October said Obama "deserves credit for pushing for a fourth round of international sanctions on Iran early in his term, just as before him President Bush deserved credit for the three previous rounds."
But Romney's argument is that sanctions are effective only if they are coupled with a credible military posture that demonstrates seriousness about taking out Iran's nuclear program by force if necessary.
A key element of Romney's case on Iran is that Obama doesn't have the guts to attack Iran, but he does. Romney all but came out and said so at a GOP primary debate focused on foreign policy in Spartanburg, S.C. on Nov. 12.
"If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you'd like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon," Romney said.
"Our current president has made it very clear that he's not willing to do those things necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly. I will take a different course," Romney said.
Obama, a Romney adviser told The Huffington Post, "says that all options are on the table but doesn't really mean all options are on the table."
So far, Obama has refrained from engaging Romney or any of the other Republican presidential candidates directly. But he did respond to Romney's provocation.
"Is this an easy issue? No. Anybody that claims it is is either politicking or doesn't know what they're talking about," Obama said when asked at a Nov. 14 press conference in Hawaii about Romney's debate comment.
Obama said at that same press conference that "we are in a much stronger position now than we were two or three years ago with respect to Iran."
"When I came into office, the world was divided and Iran was unified around its nuclear program. We now have a situation where the world is united and Iran is isolated. And because of our diplomacy and our efforts, we have, by far, the strongest sanctions on Iran that we've ever seen," Obama said.
Obama also reiterated that a military attack on Iran's program is not "off the table."
The president's supporters and surrogates began to launch volleys back at Romney on Monday, one day before the Republican field was set to gather in Washington for a debate focused on foreign policy. Clark did not mention Romney by name in prepared remarks sent to the press, but he unveiled what will likely be the definitive Democratic counter-argument to Romney on Iran.
Clark mocked the Republican frontrunner for cautious comments made in the past on Iran, while also painting him as a dangerous saber rattler -- an attack that it is part of the larger, more fundamental Democratic portrayal of Romney as a flip-flopper with no core convictions.
"One veteran candidate's position has evolved from needing to consult lawyers about how to proceed in 2007, to an eagerness for military action now that gives many of us pause," Clark said.
Romney spokesman Ryan Williams hit back in response to Clark, saying that "Obama’s feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries, weakened our allies and threatens to break faith with our military."
"His naïve approach to Iran has allowed the ayatollahs to come to the brink of a nuclear weapon," Williams said. "He has repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus. And his failure to show any kind of leadership during the recent super committee negotiations may saddle our military with a trillion dollars in defense cuts that his own secretary of defense called 'devastating.'"
Romney's jabs about Obama's willingness to use force against Iran are part of a tricky dance. Romney doesn't believe force is the only way to stop Iran. He wants another round of sanctions, including on Iran's central bank, along with a stepped-up naval presence in the region and increased cooperation with Israel to demonstrate a willingness to engage militarily.
And he does not want to be seen as beating the drums of war at a time when most Americans -- even many conservatives -- think the U.S. is over extended militarily and that the Pentagon spends too much money.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) voiced concern in the Nov. 12 debate about the Iran rhetoric from Romney and other GOP primary hopefuls.
"I'm afraid what's going on right now is similar to the war propaganda that went on against Iraq," said Paul, who opposed the Iraq war.
But Romney's Iran strategy clearly depends on sending a message to Tehran that, if elected president, he would not shrink from using military force to destroy their nuclear weapons program.
"Mitt Romney will make clear to the Iranian regime through actions -- not just words -- that a military option to deal with its nuclear program remains on the table," the campaign said in a recent release detailing the steps Romney would take to put additional pressure on Iran. "Only if Iran understands that the United States is determined that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable will there be any possibility that Iran will give up its nuclear aspirations peacefully."
Romney's most hawkish comments toward Iran are in his 2010 book, No Apology.
"Iran's rulers and its people must be made to understand that developing nuclear technology carries with it a very real risk: If its fissile material gets into the hands of a group that uses it, Iran itself will suffer devastating retaliation," Romney wrote. "Now is the time to state this plainly, as a deterrent and as a warning -- not following an attack when voices are crying for restraint and a 'proportionate' response."
Romney also said in the book that Iran is "at war" with the U.S.
"The Iranian regime is not simply a threat to us. Any force that finances and orchestrates attacks and provides the bombs and bullets that actually kill American soldiers is our enemy," Romney wrote. "We should not pretend for a moment that Iranian Khomeinists are not at war with the United States."
Romney has never believed that Obama's plan for talks with Iran without preconditions would yield much progress, a Romney adviser told HuffPost. He thinks that Obama should have taken a more adversarial posture toward Tehran from the get-go in hopes of getting them to suspend their nuclear, rather than trying to persuade the Iranians to negotiate. Romney also believes Obama was too quiet during the massive protests in 2009 against the Iranian regime that were put down violently by government forces.
When it comes to making a case against Obama on a broader set of foreign policy issues, Iran is the unifying thread as well.
Senor said that Obama "deserves a lot of credit" for getting bin Laden, but that taking out the al Qaeda leader was "necessary but not sufficient."
"America still faces a terrorist threat today, from a number of theaters," Senor said. "We saw this most recently with the news of the Iranian terror plot."
Russia's reluctance to go along with more sanctions against Iran is proof, in Romney's view, that Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia has failed.
In Romney's view, Obama's decision to shelve a planned missile defense system in Europe until perhaps 2020 was a strategic error, a hapless attempt to curry favor with Moscow. Romney has said he would speed the timeline up and reinstall elements of the Bush administration's plan that were discarded by Obama "if it becomes clear that Iran is making faster progress on developing long-range missiles than the Obama plan assumes."
Romney also critiques Obama's caution toward Syria that preceded his Aug. 18 call for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, following brutal crackdowns by the Syrian government on political protests.
"Getting our Syria policy right is crucial because Assad's regime is Tehran's only Arab world ally," Senor said. "It's Tehran's port on the Mediterranean, and it's Tehran's path to arming Hezbollah. The fall of Assad would be a strategic blow to Tehran."
And in Iraq, Romney argues that Obama's decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of this year has created "an enormous opportunity" for Iran.
"The entire region views our pullout as an American defeat and an Iranian victory, which has shaken the confidence of our allies," Senor said. "The fact that Obama made this decision within days of the revelation of the Iranian terrorist plot is especially damaging."
The alleged Iranian involvement in the Saudi ambassador plot, which Iran denies, is in fact a way for Romney to talk about the threat of terrorism on U.S. soil. Senor called it "a significant ratcheting up of Iranian terrorist activities."
"It is not the first such attempt on American soil, but it is by far the most ambitious," he added. "This attempt makes clear that as Iran moves closer to possession of nuclear weapons, it is also becoming bolder in the use of terrorism against targets in the U.S. The combination is a nightmare scenario."