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Comparing the Candidates’ Foreign Policy Records and Priorities

July 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
November's winner will face serious foreign policy tests, including war in Syria, tensions with Iran over its nuclear program and the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. To assess the candidates, Margaret Warner talks to Tim Roemer, adviser for the Obama campaign, and Rich Williamson, adviser for the Romney campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The presidential campaign’s focus has turned, however briefly, to foreign policy this week. President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney made their cases to a major veterans group, albeit on different days.

Margaret Warner has our report.

MARGARET WARNER: Mitt Romney took direct aim at the president’s leadership in the world today, telling the Veterans of Foreign Wars Convention that the last few years have been a time of declining influence and missed opportunity.

MITT ROMNEY (R): He has given trust where it is not earned, insult where it wasn’t deserved and apology where it is not due. I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of America.


MITT ROMNEY: I am not ashamed of American power.

MARGARET WARNER: Romney spoke the day after the president touted his foreign policy leadership to the same audience.

He pointed to winding down the Iraq and Afghan wars and to killing Osama bin Laden.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As we look ahead to the challenges we face as a nation and the leadership that’s required, you don’t just have my words. You have my deeds. You have my track record. You have the promises I have made and the promises that I have kept.

MARGARET WARNER: But Romney charged today that administration disclosures about the bin Laden raid and leaks on other sensitive matters show the president puts political gain ahead of the nation’s security.

MITT ROMNEY: This conduct is contemptible. It betrays our national interest. It compromises our men and women in the field. And it demands a full and prompt investigation by a special counsel with explanation and consequence.

MARGARET WARNER: The salvos came as the Republican challenger embarks tonight on a five-day trip overseas, first to England for the opening of the Summer Olympics and for a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron, then to Israel, where he will hold talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, and finally to Poland next Monday and Tuesday.

The president’s side is already criticizing the Romney trip as all photo-op, no substance. Campaign adviser Robert Gibbs said yesterday: “Mitt Romney is not engaged on these issues. Instead of offering specifics, he’s so far talked only in platitudes and criticized the president.”

Romney’s criticisms today were more pointed than in the past, accusing Mr. Obama of appeasing the Russians, misjudging Iran and undermining Israel’s position.

Mr. Obama visited Israel as a candidate in 2008, but not as president. Then-candidate Obama also visited Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, where a crowd of hundreds of thousands gave him a rock star’s welcome in Berlin.

Now, with the economy dominating the 2012 campaign, foreign policy has been on the back burner. But November’s winner will face serious challenges, including the war raging between Syria’s regime and rebels, tensions with Iran over its ongoing nuclear program, and the scheduled departure of American troops from Afghanistan even as fighting continues.

We look at where each man stands on the challenges abroad, beginning with Obama campaign foreign policy adviser former ambassador to India Tim Roemer.

I talked to him earlier today.

Tim Roemer, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

TIMOTHY ROEMER, Obama campaign: Happy to be here. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: These were pretty tough words from Mitt Romney today. He basically said the last few years have been one of declining — ones of declining American leadership. What do you say to that?

TIMOTHY ROEMER: Well, listen, Margaret — and I think your viewers all know this — President Obama’s track record, his success, his level of achievement, I think, is at historic levels compared to every presidency that we have had so far.

When you look at what the president said when he left on his trip in July of 2008, and he went to Great Britain to meet with our troops, to sit down with leaders, not to talk about platitudes or do photo-ops or fund-raisers, but to talk about what he would do policy-wise, with detail, as president, he talked about going after bin Laden and al-Qaida. And he’s done it.

He talked about bringing our troops home honorably out of Iraq, and he’s done it. He talked about strengthening our alliances overseas and building coalitions. He’s done that both in Iran, with Iran, against Iran, and he’s done it with respect to Gadhafi and getting Gadhafi out of power.

So across the board, the president has a track record, not speeches. And the president’s also somebody who has effectively used American power, and not been an appeaser and an apologist for it. He’s gone after bin Laden and Gadhafi. Ask them if he’s tough enough and if he uses American power effectively enough.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Romney, speaking of appeasing, does accuse the president, though — and this keys into his upcoming trip — of appeasing rivals like Russia and basically undermining allies like Poland and Eastern Europe or Israel.

TIMOTHY ROEMER: Here’s where I think the governor really needs to step up to the standards that the American people believe in and expect for a commander in chief.

Commander in chief is one of the toughest jobs in the world. And the expectations from the American people are, protect our country from attack, form alliances with neighbors and friends, and bring our troops — when you bring them home, take care of them. The president has done all three of those things. He’s brought our troops home honorably. He’s put a timetable forward in Afghanistan. He has…

MARGARET WARNER: But what about the specifics on…

TIMOTHY ROEMER: He’s recognized where the threats are in the world.

Governor Romney, on the other hand, has said things, very general things, Margaret, like Russia is our primary foe today. Al-Qaida is not? Bin Laden is not? He said he would do the opposite from President Obama in Israel. The opposite of what? Is that the opposite of helping Israel build their iron dome to protect themselves from the missiles of Hamas?

Is that cutting the record security aid that the president has delivered for them? What is Governor Romney about? In this speech today, I don’t think we’re clear about it. I don’t think we know what he’d do on Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, and we will get a chance to ask Rich Williamson in a minute.

But let me ask you about another specific criticism, which is he’s blaming what he called radical defense cuts on President Obama, both current and looming ones.

TIMOTHY ROEMER: I think this is more rhetoric, more campaign talk.

Look, the Congress and the super committee were supposed to come up with a resolution for our budget. They came up with this sequestration if they can’t fix it. And so there are going to be some pending cuts if the Congress can’t fix their looming problem.

Now, the president has outlined a policy where he has said, we have put two wars on the credit cards for Americans, trillions of dollars. And he wants to strategically balance a strong, quick, smart Army and Navy and Air Force and defense for America, but not just say, as Mitt Romney has said, I’m not going to cut a dime anywhere.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get to a final quick thing. He’s also attacking the White House for leaks and disclosures about sensitive foreign covert operations, including the raid to get bin Laden.

TIMOTHY ROEMER: And the president has been very clear and determined about this.

He has said he won’t tolerate leaks in his administration. He is — he knows how he relies on those special ops people and those great CIA people that helped him and the American people pull off these stellar and spectacular hits on al-Qaida, with the drone attacks and getting bin Laden and bring him to justice. And the president has said a prosecutor appointed by a Republican and a Democrat will get to the bottom of this and get at these leaks.

And he’s condemned them, and I think he’s taken the right approach.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, well, Tim Roemer, thank you so much for being with us.

TIMOTHY ROEMER: Thanks for having me, Margaret. Nice to be here.

MARGARET WARNER: And now for Mitt Romney’s side, we’re joined by campaign foreign policy adviser Rich Williamson. He is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

And, Mr. Williamson, thanks for joining us.

RICH WILLIAMSON, Romney campaign: Thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, so, what we heard from Tim Roemer is what he heard from Robert Gibbs yesterday, that, essentially, there’s no policy flesh on the bones of the Romney foreign policy, some principles, or, as they say, no specifics to the platitudes, is the way they put it.


Well, there are specifics on a whole range of issues. Let’s talk about defense for a second. The president has allowed our defense to have substantial cuts, to enervate. He is orchestrating a crisis on sequestration that will result in the lowest Army men since World War II, the smallest Navy since World War I. And he’s holding it for his own political purposes on tax cuts.

There are serious proposals by McCain and others on defense. What Romney is saying is we should increase our naval ships, which is why we have problems in the South China Sea and elsewhere. And we’re seeing the deployment in the Persian Gulf depleting other places. He’s been specific on that. He’s been specific about maintaining the size of the Army. He’s been specific about reforms and procurement.

So, with all due respect to Ambassador Roemer, he either isn’t listening or he intentionally is misdirecting.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s take a couple other things that Governor Romney mentioned today and he just mentioned.

What about Afghanistan? Now, today, he seemed to be saying he would stick to the NATO timeline of 2014.


MARGARET WARNER: What would he do differently going forward?

RICH WILLIAMSON: Well, you know, I think that’s a false paradigm.

The real question is how President Romney will address these issues once he’s in office, how President Obama has addressed them during the last four years. And we have criticized the degree to which politics had to do with the timeline, that when he finally announced a surge, which was his third different Afghan policy in his first year, President Obama also did a date when he was going to withdraw, et cetera.

So Governor Romney said he is going to listen closely to military advice. He’s going to deal with the neighbors in the area. And he thinks we can get to 2014, but we have to recognize the need to get a vigorous security in place in Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: But nothing specific that he would change the timetable?

RICH WILLIAMSON: Nothing on the timetable.


RICH WILLIAMSON: I gave you some specifics on the timetable.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes. Yes. Yes. Well, you gave me specifics about the way President Obama had acted.

But let me ask you about Iran, because actually Vice President Biden had a comment late this afternoon about that. He said Romney had done a compelling job laying out exactly what the administration is already doing.

RICH WILLIAMSON: That’s ridiculous.

I know the vice president’s job is to attack and sometimes say things that may push the envelope, but that’s ridiculous. Let’s look.

Four years ago this month, Senator Obama in Israel gave a speech where he acknowledged that the most looming threat was Iran’s nuclear program.

Three-and-a-half years later, Iran has irrefutably made substantial problem toward nuclear breakout and substantial progress on its missile defense. Bismarck said diplomacy without the credible threat of force is like music with no instruments.

MARGARET WARNER: And you don’t think…

RICH WILLIAMSON: This administration has music with no instruments.

How come we engaged right away — when the Green Revolution of innocent people were being beaten to death, were being arbitrarily arrested, we said nothing? We are now engaged in a phony engagement with the Iranians to give them more time to go to nuclear breakout.

MARGARET WARNER: So, if I’m a voter trying to decide how different Iran policy would be under Mitt Romney…


MARGARET WARNER: … would I assume that he’d be quicker to use military force?

RICH WILLIAMSON: I — he would have credible military force.

No one in Tehran, no one in Israel, no one in the region believes that Barack Obama will use military force. And the result is, Tehran listened to that open mike between the president and Medvedev and said, OK, let’s wait until after the election, when he has more flexibility and he is going to cut a deal allowing us to have enrichment, and that is what going to happen if we reelect Obama, and that will result in a much more dangerous region, not only for Israel, but for the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And would he be more encouraging to Israel to take military action?

RICH WILLIAMSON: Well, I’ll tell you what he’d do. He’d be talking to them to get a coordinated approach, as opposed to only publicly castigating them. We should work with our allies, not try to corner them and browbeat them.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, we have to leave it there.

Rich Williamson, thank you very much.

RICH WILLIAMSON: Thanks very much.

MARGARET WARNER: And you can watch both candidates’ speeches to the VFW on our website later tonight. Plus, our politics team will track Romney’s international travels each day this week in The Morning Line.