Obama betters Romney on foreign policy

The foreign policy strengths of incumbents and opposing candidates don't appear to have affected presidential election outcomes in recent decades. An exception was 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter decisively in part because of their perceived strengths in dealing with Iran over American hostages who were then in Tehran.

This might well explain why Romney is seeking to demonstrate that he'll stand up for America more vigorously than Obama. He is probably also mindful that in a July New York Times/CBS poll, 47% of Americans surveyed nationally said Obama would do a better job on foreign policy, whereas only 40% preferred Romney.

Since 2008, Obama has promoted universal values internationally, maintained a largely hands-off approach towards the Arab Spring, achieved some national security successes in Afghanistan and Libya, rid the world of Osama bin Laden, ended the war in Iraq, and pressed the Egyptian military to transfer power to a democratically elected president.

Relations with European countries are much improved largely because Obama listens. The same holds for Latin America, Africa, and Asia, except for China, where some of us think he has failed to assert human dignity and U.S. economic concerns effectively. If he wins the election, Romney pledges to name Beijing as a currency manipulator, which would no doubt restore some American manufacturing jobs. Obama should make a similar commitment.

Obama pays attention to the tone of his speeches even during crises. He did not politicize the recent crisis in North Africa and the Middle East as Romney did in his initial response. Anxious to build bridges with the Arab world, he sensibly admits that America is not always right. In his 2009 speech in Cairo, he stated, "No system of government... should be imposed on one nation by any other ...America does not presume to know what is best for everyone." Compared to that of George W. Bush, his is a much kinder and gentler foreign-policy. Many view him a prudent and steady international leader.

[ Related: 'Quarterback' Obama fumbles foreign policy, still gets the credit ]

America's ambassador to Libya and others were recently murdered in a raid on its consulate in Benghazi as anger erupted across the region over an obscure anti-Muslim film produced by a hate-inciting California filmmaker. With anti-U.S. protests wide-spread, Obama seeks to offer both compassion as president and resolve as commander in chief to protect Americans under siege. The continuing violence is challenging him to show that he still deserves confidence.

Romney promises a harder line in general. For example, on Russia, he says: "Under my administration... Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone." Earlier, he cited Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe", although the characterization ignores shared interests in reducing nuclear stockpiles, ending additional proliferation by Iran and North Korea and preventing nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists. Obama's 'reset' policy on Moscow has produced some cooperation in these issues, as well as Russian support for the Northern Distribution Network that supplies troops in Afghanistan.

Obama offers a steady hand in a dangerous period and accuses Romney of outsourcing policy to "neocon advisers", who would return to the thoughtless adventurism of the Bush administration. He positions the choice as being between "leadership... tested and proven" and a Republican team that is "new to foreign policy," with a worldview stuck in a "Cold War time warp."

Romney responds by listing Obama's foreign policy failures, which have "diminished American influence and compromised our interests and values": not containing Iran's nuclear ambitions; leaks of material on national security; damaging cuts in military spending; a damaged relationship with Israel; and a weak response to the civil war in Syria. He didn't add the failed Middle East peace negotiations and the chaotic situation in Afghanistan.

Yet Obama has delivered on a promise to end the Iraq war and has turned the nation's focus to counter-terrorism. Romney, he counters, believes that Russia — not Al Qaeda — poses the greatest peril to the United States and that ending the Iraq war was "tragic." Nor, he adds, has Romney offered a blueprint for winding down the war in Afghanistan.

In terms of influencing U.S. policies, Canada has unfortunately become almost irrelevant. Susan Rice, Obama's ambassador to the U.N., noted about her time in the Clinton administration: "For almost a generation, the U.S. has conducted foreign policy largely without regard to Canada's perspective." Consequently, while the Canada-U.S. relationship is intensive, its comprehensiveness means that even a small element of difficulty translates into many specific cases.

Although Obama's first foreign visit was to Canada, he doesn't appear to have a close personal relationship with Stephen Harper, who was clearly vexed, for example, by the president's decision to delay the Keystone pipeline. Governor Romney might have a cottage in Canada, but most Canadians appear to prefer Obama's foreign policy positions overall.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.

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