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Assessing Differences Between Obama’s, Romney’s Foreign Policy Platforms

October 8, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
President Obama and Mitt Romney have traded barbs on foreign policy while remaining vague about specific proposals. Judy Woodruff talks to former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Duke University's Peter Feaver on how the United States should move forward on foreign policy priorities.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on all this for more on all of this and the differences between the presidential candidates when it comes to foreign policy, we get two views.

Michele Flournoy is the co-chair of the Obama campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee. She also served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration.

And Peter Feaver served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush administration. He’s now a professor of political science and public policy at DukeUniversity.

And we thank you both for being with us.

MICHELE FLOURNOY, Obama Campaign: Thank you.

PETER FEAVER, former National Security Council official: Thanks for having us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Feaver, to you first. We heard Gov. Romney today criticize the president broadly for not projecting strongly enough America’s influence in the world. And yet when it came to specifics, we didn’t hear many details.

So let me just ask you about a couple of different places in the world. What about when it comes to Iran? What exactly would Gov. Romney be doing differently right now?

PETER FEAVER: Well, this is a criticism that the Obama campaign has leveled at the Romney campaign for not being detailed and specific enough.

When it comes to Iran, the president hasn’t laid out a red line that he said clearly he would enforce. When asked to be precise about what it means for Iran not to possess a nuclear weapon — that’s his articulation of the red line — he’s been vague and says he doesn’t want to parse it further.

So, I think there’s a certain element of ambiguity about where you would draw the line precisely so as to avoid being trapped by it.

But the other point to make is that President Obama has had several years. During those years, the options that he took or the choices that he took narrowed the options that we have today.

So one of the reasons why Gov. Romney’s approach to Iran looks similar in some respects to President Obama’s is because Gov. Romney would have done things very differently two, three years ago.

Gov. Romney had raised the critique in June of 2009. That’s when you have to begin the story.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, let me just ask you very quickly, would Governor Romney, for example, be more willing to let Israel go ahead and attack Iran if it came to that?

PETER FEAVER: Gov. Romney has made it clear that we can’t dictate to Israel how Israel protects itself from what it considers to be an existential threat.

Gov. Romney also has said that he would be Israel’s strongest supporter in the region. He’s worried about President Obama’s decision to create daylight between the United States and Israel.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me turn then to Michele Flournoy.

How do you respond for the campaign?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Well, the Iran case is a great example of where the rhetoric would suggest huge differences between the president’s position and Gov. Romney’s position.

But when you actually look at what Romney called for, crippling sanctions, positioning our forces to be ready in the Gulf, and keeping the military option on the table, that’s exactly what President Obama has done and exactly what his record has shown.

So it’s a case of overdrawing the differences rhetorically, but then actually not being able to say much about what would he — what would Gov. Romney really do differently as commander in chief.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about Peter Feaver’s point though that the decisions that were made a couple of years have narrowed the choices that anybody would — any leader would have today?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Well, I don’t — I’m not sure what he’s referring to there.

I think President Obama, one of the things he did at the start of this administration was invest in strengthening our alliances and it’s those alliances and partnerships that have brought the international community around this strategy.

This isn’t just U.S. strategy. This is a tremendous international effort to impose these sanctions. The rial, the Iranian currency, has lost tremendous value over the last several weeks. The sanctions are biting and the policy is moving us in the right direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peter Feaver, let me — I want to — I do want to turn to several different parts of the world. And maybe we can come back to Iran in a minute.

But on Iraq, we heard Gov. Romney say that President Obama moved too abruptly to pull the troops out. What would Gov. Romney do differently? Would he — how much longer would he have left U.S. troops in Iraq?

PETER FEAVER: Well, I think Governor — if Romney had been president for the last four years, he would have handled the negotiations with Iraq very differently.

He would have been personally involved. President Obama delegated it and refused to maintain the relations, the close relations with Prime Minister Maliki that President Bush had. He delegated it to Vice President Biden, a fine man, but a man with baggage in the region because of his previous policy stance on dividing up Iraq.

They created a team on the ground in Baghdad that was unable to achieve unity of effort. Ambassador Hill was unable to cooperate with the military in the same effective way that Ambassador Crocker had with Petraeus.

The Iraq — I mean, the Obama team undermined their negotiations by leaking that they didn’t think that the negotiations would be successful. All of these contributed, I think, to the situation we have today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Flournoy?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Having been very involved in this, I would beg to differ with that characterization.

Look, we came to a point where the U.S. clearly offered a residual force to continue to help Iraq with its security challenges and develop the force.

Maliki decided that he was uncomfortable taking the necessary legal framework to protect our troops through his parliament, because he was worried about a no-confidence vote, you know, that any excuse on a controversial vote — you know, that that would create an excuse to give him a no-confidence vote.

He was very worried about the impact on his tenure. And so he said, we’re not willing to do it.

And at that point, the secretary of defense and the president decided what anyone in their position would have, which is, you can’t keep thousands of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil without legal protections to ensure that they wouldn’t be subject to Iraqi laws, Iraqi courts and so forth.

That was the recommendation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. It was clearly the right thing to do at that point. But this was a political decision by Prime Minister Maliki, not some technical issue in the negotiations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you about another part of the world, Peter Feaver. And that is China.

We heard Gov. Romney say — he cited again and again the need for the United States to take the lead around the world. He said the U.S. should use its great influence to shape events.

And then he talked about China’s recent assertiveness in the Pacific region. What would he have the United States do right now to shape events with China?

PETER FEAVER: Well, there has been some bipartisanship on East Asia.

So the Obama administration, after flirting with a different policy in 2009, returned to an emphasis on Asia that had been there in the previous administration.

There is an emphasis that involves strengthening our alliances with Japan and India and presenting to China a clear choice about — we will cooperate if they play by the rules of the game, but we will also demand that they play by the rules of the game.

That strategy, which Obama came to rather late, has been the strategy that we have followed in the past. And that’s the strategy that we will follow in the future.

The problem with President Obama’s pivot to Asia is not that he’s focusing on Asia. It’s that he’s under-resourced the pivot to Asia. The big difference between a second term for President Obama and a Romney administration would be that — Romney’s pledge to beef up the U.S. Navy, which is the key service of interest to strengthen our position in Asia. And I think that’s an important difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about that resource question, Michele Flournoy?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think the rebalancing requires reinvestment in our relationships, which is happening, which is a diplomatic effort. It does require some change of our military posture.

But it’s not just about number of ships. There is — there are plans that are being put in place now to actually shift more of the Navy into Asia.

But what matters most is, what are the capabilities of those systems? And when you look at what this administration has protected and increased investment in, in its military budget, it is the capabilities required to enable American freedom of action, freedom of navigation in a very contested environment in Asia and elsewhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. We know the two candidates are going to be debating foreign policy on October the 22nd.

We thank you both for being with us.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all of Mitt Romney’s speech at VMI today on our website.