07/24/2012 08:57 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2012

Sparring on Foreign Policy in Reno -- and the Winner Is...

In their dueling speeches to the Veterans of Foreign Wars this week, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have offered pointedly contrasting visions on American defense and foreign policy. Foreign embassies are parsing their texts for clues to likely American behavior in coming years as they prepare cables for their governments back home, since there will not be another such occasion until the one presidential debate traditionally devoted to foreign policy in the fall.

Perhaps more Americans than conventional wisdom expects will also be attentive to the contrasts in these two addresses. Last week's New York Times poll revealed that a surprising two-thirds of voters say that foreign policy is very important to their vote -- the same share as view illegal immigration as very important, and half again higher than those who attach importance to supposedly red-button "social issues." And on these issues, President Obama is seen as more able by a 47-to-40 percent margin.

To be sure, Obama actually devoted less attention in his V.F.W. address to foreign policy (28 percent of his speaking time) than to the care of American veterans when they return home (43 percent of his allotted time). Governor Romney spent 70 percent of his speech Tuesday on foreign policy, and the bulk of the rest to criticisms of alleged security leaks; he did not address veterans' care issues.

The president began by reminding the war veterans of America's tattered global standing as George W. Bush's administration approached its end -- a point of reference Romney did not cite. "We were engaged in two wars. Al Qaeda was entrenched in their safe havens in Pakistan. Many of our alliances were frayed. Our standing in the world had suffered. We were in the worst recession of our lifetimes."

Obama reiterated his standard summary of accomplishments, depicted as 2008 campaign commitments fulfilled. He said he terminated the war his predecessor had launched in Iraq, "honorably" and without illusions about a mission accomplished. He slyly recalled that last year "some said" -- presumably meaning Romney -- that bringing the troops home "was a mistake." Romney in his remarks would not mention Iraq at all.

His troop surge in Afghanistan, Obama said, set back the Taliban as a necessary prelude to a timetable for U.S. withdrawal -- though "there are those who argued against a timeline for ending this war," evidently alluding again to Romney. Romney replied Tuesday that his criticism was of withdrawing troops this summer, against the generals' wish to keep them for the entire fighting season.

Inevitably, the president cited Osama bin Laden, whose dispatch he prudently credited to "the courage and the skill of our forces." Obama made a point of recalling having stirred controversy in his 2008 campaign for pledging to get bin Laden "even if it meant going into Pakistan."

And he insisted that "we're leading around the world, people have a new attitude toward America," citing surveys like those showing America once again the world's most admired country. "There's more confidence in our leadership," he concluded, pointing to the unaccustomed sight of Arab crowds waving American flags in Libya.

The president claimed credit for tightening the sanctions noose around Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs, for renewal of alliances that "have never been stronger," and for "leading on behalf of freedom" in the Middle East and North Africa.

Obama made just a discreet mention of promoting change in Syria, and a passing reference to leading the global fight against the dangers of nuclear weapons. But he had not a word for his frustrated efforts to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Governor Romney told the veterans Tuesday that his own foreign policy approach derives from his "one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century." That century, he insisted, can only be secured by towering military strength. He sharply attacked last summer's deficit-reduction compromise that puts military spending on the chopping block along with domestic expenditure, describing the prospective sequestration as "the President's radical cuts in the military."

Romney took aim at the president's claim of strengthened alliances with an attack on Obama's decision to cancel the antimissile system the Bush administration had sought to install in Poland, a reversal of Bush policy he called "a unilateral concession" to Russia that unnerved Polish leaders (although most NATO allies seemed relieved to eliminate the so-called provocation). Romney suggested there is little point in having a working relationship with Russian leaders. By contrast, he balanced his suspicions of China with an explicit call "for China to be a partner for a stable and secure world."

The former governor was fiercest in denouncing the president's "shabby treatment" of Israel, even claiming that Obama has joined in "accusations, threats, and insults at the United Nations" against Israel. Strikingly, he did not criticize the president for what is arguably his biggest failure, failing to deliver on Mideast peace, leaving the impression that peace there is a fool's errand.

Romney was unequivocal on the corollary issue of Iran's nuclear program: "There must be a full suspension of any enrichment, period" -- the same red line as the Bush administration had set, unavailingly. And he assured the veterans of his resolve, in terms that Israeli political leaders would endorse as a commitment to military action: "I will use every means necessary to protect ourselves and the region, and to prevent the worst from happening while there is still time."

There were, to be sure, many diplomatic ambiguities in both candidates' presentations in Reno. And there is little reason to think this exchange will alter voters' perceptions.

But the sparring did make clear there would be a significant shift in America's direction if Mitt Romney comes to power -- including on some of the same issues on which Obama's predecessor had most estranged America from its strongest allies in Europe and Asia. Obama still has the edge.