Conor Friedersdorf makes an unpersuasive case for agnosticism about the differences between how Obama and Romney would conduct foreign policy in the future:
Would President Obama be more or less willing than President Romney to wage war on Iran without congressional approval? There really is no way to know.
Conor would be on much stronger ground to say that there is no way to know with certainty, but that is always true. The answer to this question isn’t as unknowable as Conor suggests. If we assume that both Obama and Romney are perfectly willing to order a large-scale military attack on another country without Congressional approval (and there is no reason to think otherwise), the question becomes, “Would Obama be more or less willing than Romney to wage war on Iran?” That isn’t the same thing as asking for a prediction that one of them definitely would start a war with Iran. That is something we can’t know.
Based on what Obama has done and what Romney says that he will do, we can see much greater willingness on Romney’s part for confrontation and conflict. Because Romney perceives Obama’s foreign policy to be one of excessive engagement and “appeasement” (however ridiculous that perception may be), he is more likely to favor policies that he thinks represent a sharp contrast with the Obama foreign policy he is rejecting. We saw this when Bush was campaigning and when he first took office. Rhetoric about “humble” foreign policy aside, Candidate Bush often expressed disdain for Clinton’s preference for multilateralism, and he governed in an “Anything But Clinton” style. The strong preference for unilateralism should have clued people in that Bush’s rhetoric about humility didn’t mean very much. “Anything But Obama” isn’t just a campaign pose for Romney. It seems to reflect a real aversion to diplomacy and multilateralism on the part of Romney and his advisers. The Romney campaign regards Obama’s willingness to engage and negotiate with authoritarian states to be one of his greatest failings.
Romney is surrounded by advisers with stronger inclinations to support the use of force against other states. For the most part, Romney’s advisers tend to believe more in the efficacy of hard power for achieving U.S. goals, they are more likely to exaggerate the threat from Iran, and they are more likely to underestimate the costs of any conflict. Romney’s rhetoric on Iran has been less provocative than that of Santorum (or Huntsman, for that matter), but he has also repeatedly stated that there should not be “one inch of space” between the U.S. and Israel. That implies that he would be more likely to support an Israeli strike on Iran and would be more willing than Obama to commit the U.S. to a war with Iran on Israel’s side. These are admittedly differences of degree, but they are observable differences.
Would Romney keep David Petraeus and Leon Panetta?
Assuming Petraeus wanted to remain in the next administration, Romney would keep him. That is an obvious choice for Romney. Petraeus has been the focus of Republican adoration for the last five years, and there is no risk for Romney in keeping Petraeus in his current job, and there is probably no great risk in moving him over to the Pentagon. On the other hand, Romney has no incentive whatever to keep Panetta or any other Cabinet-level Obama appointee. The rule over the last twenty years has been that Democratic Presidents may sometimes appoint a Republican or someone appointed by a Republican President to a major Cabinet post such as Secretary of Defense (Clinton appointed Cohen, and Obama re-appointed Gates), but the reverse is not true. That doesn’t mean that Romney wouldn’t offer this position to a non-Republican, but if he did so it would be to give it to a non-Republican whose reputation for hawkishness was secure. It might be more instructive to think about the difference between Obama and Romney this way: Joe Lieberman has a much better chance of becoming Secretary of Defense in a Romney administration than he does in Obama’s second term.
I can’t agree with Conor when he says:
As yet, I find it difficult to discern how much Romney is pandering to neoconservatives as opposed to being in sympathy with them, how strong the growing anti-war sentiment in the Republican Party is, or how Romney feels about war spending.
For Romney, there is no meaningful difference between his pandering and his “real” sympathies. His beliefs are dependent on the people to whom he is pandering, and his instinct has been to pander to Republican hawks. He risks more inside the party if he alienates them than he is likely to gain by making a major break with them. I suspect that Romney has no problem with current levels of war spending. If he did, he would not be so hostile to the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban in Afghanistan. He says that he wants to make large increases to the military budget.
Specific policies aside, one thing we do know about what Romney will do is that he will pander to national security hawks whenever possible. He has been doing this for at least seven years. Foreign policy is arguably the only subject on which he has been consistent because it is one he never had to address before he began preparing for his first presidential campaign. It is also the one subject to which he has clearly given very little thought prior to his presidential campaigns, which makes him unusually vulnerable to having his views shaped by his advisers and political pressure inside his party. Romney’s instinct to pander to his party’s hawks and his excessive dependence on his advisers for the content of his views suggest that Romney’s foreign policy will most likely be what his more hawkish advisers want it to be.