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A clash of titans or midgets?

By HARLAN ULLMAN, UPI Outside View Commentator   |   April 4, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

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WASHINGTON, April 4 (UPI) -- Last Friday's Washington Post headline read "Romney to stress foreign policy" in the presidential race. The presumptive Republican nominee clearly recognized that it isn't entirely "the economy stupid." One way to win in November may be through discrediting Barack Obama's foreign policy.

While ripe for attack, foreign policy isn't usually the basis for winning or losing an election. I have repeatedly criticized the Obama White House's foreign and defense policy but was much harsher on George W. Bush's administration. With many refugees of the Bush team flocking around Mitt Romney, confidence is hardly inspired.

If a long overdue foreign policy debate does unfold, it won't be a clash of titans. A more appropriate metaphor is a contest between lightweights or, unless Romney raises his game, a midget battling a lightweight. The shallowness of the Republican presidential debates over foreign policy unambiguously proved that Romney must spend more time and effort in learning about these issues if he is to be taken seriously regarding foreign policy.

Team Obama inherited a calamitous foreign policy agenda for which the new president was uniquely unprepared, as were his two immediate predecessors. Sadly, experience isn't a prerequisite for the presidency. In Iraq, Obama's hands were tied by the Bush administration's strategic agreements reached with the Maliki government. Extrication was the only option. And Iraq is headed for, or already is in, a state of civil war.

Afghanistan might have been different. Tragically, Obama's Afghan-Pakistan review undertaken immediately after assuming office was fatally flawed.

"AfPak," as it was called, should have been named "PakAf" underscoring the vital importance of Pakistan, the first of a series of many wrong White House assumptions and decisions. Perhaps seizing success from impending failure was never possible.

However, the Obama review guaranteed an unhappy outcome in Afghanistan by failing to focus on governance and economic development -- the two most important legs of the strategy.

Egypt, Libya, North Korea, Syria and, of course, Iran remain unfinished business. It is easy to criticize and infinitely harder to create sound policy options. George W. Bush learned that with North Korea, which, despite threats and promises to prevent it from obtaining some type of a nuclear capability, did so anyway.

Romney, so far, has allowed his rather pedestrian and even banal views on foreign policy to become overwhelmed by truly shocking statements.

Last week, Romney declared Russia to be our "No. 1 geopolitical foe!"

He has categorically stated that, as president, he would prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons by using whatever force might be necessary, implicitly suggesting that should air attacks not succeed, he might employ ground forces.

He also promises to "get tough" with China, whatever that means.

His principal foreign policy vision was recorded in a speech given at the Citadel in October 2011, where George W. Bush used the same bully pulpit more than a decade earlier. The speech was riddled with hackneyed expressions calling for more "clarity and vision," "leadership in multilateral organizations and alliances" and better use of "hard and soft power" without any specifics beyond increasing ground forces by 100,000 and the number of U.S. Navy carrier battle groups by four. Why those increases in defense are strategically justified or important and how they would be paid for remain unanswered questions.

By the end of his second term, although his critics disagree, George W. Bush had become a competent chief executive. The learning curve was unaffordable and the country won't recover any time soon. If Barack Obama wins a second term, he may or may not follow the Bush example.

At this point, Romney hasn't displayed sufficient foreign policy skills or an understanding of these issues likely to prove persuasive to voters beyond attacking Obama. Unfortunately, those attacks so far lack weight and Romney's alternatives are either superficial or frightening, e.g. his statements vis-a-vis Russia and Iran. And too many of his listed advisers carry the burden of having advised W and his series of foreign policy disasters and gaffes.

In the midst of a nominating fight that seems vampirish in that opponents refuse to die, Romney must have little to no free time. Finding space to immerse himself in foreign policy tutorials will be exceedingly difficult. That said, Romney still must find some reliable mentors who are bipartisan when it comes to foreign policy. Former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski and past senators such as Sam Nunn and Chuck Hagel are people with wisdom, experience and value.

Without outside help, the good governor will be outclassed and outmatched by a highly articulate incumbent better versed in the facts. So, perhaps "the economy stupid" may be a stronger electoral avenue for Romney to pursue if he is to win in November.

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(Harlan Ullman is Chairman of the Killowen Group, which advises leaders of government and business, and senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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