Starting next week, former Massachusetts Governor Romney will take some time off from campaigning in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and travel to Europe and Israel in an effort to burnish his thin foreign policy credentials. He faces a problem that every challenger has when going up against an incumbent president: how to show that his foreign policy understanding is better than the person who has led our country for the last three and a half years. This is an immense challenge that Romney faces, but given the damage that President Obama has done to our relationships with many key allies, something that is not out of reach.
Romney faces a set of circumstances that many past Republican candidates haven’t had to face, namely a lack of concern about foreign policy among the voting public and a Democratic opponent who is actually more trusted to defend the United States from a terrorist attack, and make wise decisions about foreign policy. As Joseph Sarkisian pointed out earlier this week, only 4% of registered voters claimed foreign policy as the most important issue in this election. In a close race such as this, Romney must do everything he can to win over as much of the voting population as possible.
It is notable that while the campaign hasn’t finished deciding where in Europe Romney will visit, the first place it was announced that Romney would be going was Israel. Israel is an important ally in the region and one that has seen its relationship with the United States deteriorate under the Obama administration. Good ties with Israel are important to a small but important group of Americans from all parties and faiths, which make it a good place for Romney to draw some distinctions with the president. However, as with most other areas of foreign policy, Romney has seemingly refused to give any details on how he would improve relations. While a change in parties would probably help improve relations, especially given the view in Israel that the Republican Party is much friendlier toward Israel, Romney still fails to give specific solutions to problems such as working with the Palestinians and preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.
It is imperative that Romney outline with specifics what he plans to do if he is elected. The rhetoric and buzzwords that sound great on the campaign are not enough. He needs to articulate what policies he will pursue with places like Pakistan, Western Europe, the Caucasus, China and South America, all of which seem to struggle to command the attention of President Obama. It is not good, for example, when some of Romney’s own top surrogates cannot articulate his policy on Afghanistan, where we have tens of thousands of troops.
Because of economic conditions, this trip will not gain the publicity and sway voters the way that foreign policy issues have in the past. This is unfortunate because under President Obama, we have seen worsening relations among normally friendly countries like India, as well as a continued deterioration among countries whom we have never been close with, but are still important to both regional and global geopolitics, like Pakistan and Russia. President Obama has had a few foreign policy successes, like the killing of Osama Bin Laden and the overthrow of Moammar Gaddhafi, but as a whole this administration has struggled to make significant progress on almost every major foreign policy issue, despite having one of the best Secretary of State in recent memory. Like in so many other policy areas, Obama has made enough mistakes that Romney has an opening, whether he can actually take advantage of it remains his weakness. This trip gives him the perfect opportunity to turn his campaign around and start talking about substantive issues, something we’ve seen very little of from either candidate.