Romney and Obama worlds apart on foreign policy


IN DUELLING foreign policy speeches yesterday, US president Barack Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney conveyed different, perhaps equally naive, visions of American values and their capacity to bring about change.

In his annual speech to the UN General Assembly, Obama condemned violence and extremism but was optimistic that the “common heartbeat to humanity” would triumph.

At the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), a sort of parallel United Nations organised by the former US president, Romney expressed unbridled confidence in the power of free enterprise and work to transform mankind.

Both men transposed the dominant theme of their presidential campaigns – solidarity and togetherness in the case of Obama; belief in the private sector for Romney – onto the world stage.

Obama’s remarks on Iran were eagerly awaited, in light of disagreement with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu on the necessity of imposing “red lines” on the Iranian nuclear programme.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad added to that anticipation on Monday when he said Israel had “no roots in history” and that homosexuality was “ugly”. He also denied that Iran provided military assistance to Syria.

Obama called Iran an example of “where the path of a violent and unaccountable ideology leads”. He accused Ahmadinejad’s government of propping up a dictator in Damascus, supporting terrorist groups abroad and failing to demonstrate that its nuclear programme was peaceful.

But, Obama continued, “America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so”.

After recounting the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran, he promised vaguely that “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon”.

Obama did not offer a solution to the civil war in Syria either. The previous day, UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi reported that the situation was “dire” and his attempts to negotiate a settlement had reached a stalemate.

Obama accused the Syrian regime of torturing children and shooting rockets at apartment buildings. “We must stand with those Syrians who believe in a different vision,” he said, without elaborating on what “stand with” meant.

Much of Obama’s speech was devoted to the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11th, the murder of US ambassador Chris Stevens and the video that prompted anti-American protests across the Muslim world.

Not only were the attacks on US diplomats in Benghazi “attacks on America . . . they are also an assault on the very ideals upon which the United Nations was founded”, Obama said. He promised that the US would be “relentless in tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice”, and thanked the leaders of Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen for stepping up protection of US diplomatic posts and calling for calm.

Contrasting “the forces that would drive us apart” with “the hopes we hold in common”, Obama called on the world body to “affirm that our future will be determined by people like Chris Stevens, and not by his killers. Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”

Obama also took the opportunity to condemn what he called the “crude and disgusting video” that “sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world”.

The US’s commitment to free speech prevented the government from banning the video. But, he stressed, “there is no speech that justifies mindless violence . . . no words that excuse the killing of innocents . . . no video that justifies an attack on an embassy”.

On the campaign trail in Colorado the previous day, Romney had ridiculed Obama for describing recent unrest as “bumps in the road” to democracy in the Middle East. “These are not bumps in the road; these are human lives,” Romney said, adding that it was “time for a president who will shape events in the Middle East”.

Obama insisted yesterday that “this is a season of progress”, as shown by fair elections in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The US has not, and will not, seek to dictate the outcome of democratic transitions abroad,” he promised.

The US president devoted four perfunctory sentences to the Israeli-Palestinian question, which dominated his earlier appearances at the UN. He called for “a secure Jewish state of Israel” beside “an independent, prosperous Palestine”, to be achieved “through a just agreement between the two parties”.

The reception accorded Obama yesterday was somewhere between the rapturous applause that greeted his first UN addresses, in which he embraced multilateralism and promised that an independent Palestine would sit in the UN chamber by 2011, and the stony silence that met his speech last year, when he dashed Palestinian hopes of admission as a member. The world body, like the US public, seemed to have shed its illusions about Obama, but to still regard him sympathetically.

In criticism of the president, an hour earlier at the CGI, Romney implied he would act unilaterally and proactively in the Middle East. “Syria has witnessed the killing of tens of thousands of people. The president of Egypt is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Our ambassador to Libya was assassinated in a terrorist attack. And Iran is moving toward nuclear weapons capability,” he said. “We feel that we are at the mercy of events, rather than shaping events.”

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll conducted after the attack in Benghazi showed the approval rating for Obama’s stewardship of foreign policy fell from 54 per cent to 49 per cent in one month.

“Free enterprise has done more to bless humanity than any other economic system,” Romney said.

US foreign aid had often been ineffective. He would right this by “accessing the transformative nature of free enterprise”; in effect privatising overseas assistance through “Prosperity Pacts” that would “couple aid with trade and private investment”.

The Republican candidate quoted Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation sparked the Arab Spring. “I just want to work,” the 26-year-old had said. “Work. That must be at the heart of our effort to help people build economies,” Romney said.

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