By Jamie Crawford
When North Korea launched a rocket earlier this month in a failed attempt to supposedly put a satellite into orbit, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to condemn the latest provocation and then canceled a deal to resume nutritional assistance.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, offered a blistering statement of his own. But his statement was not entirely directed at the new leader in Pyongyang. It was also directed at the U.S. commander in chief.
"Instead of approaching Pyongyang from a position of strength, President Obama sought to appease the regime with a food-aid deal that proved to be as naive as it was short-lived," Romney said in a written statement. "At the same time, he has cut critical U.S. missile defense programs and continues to underfund them," he added, digging at another area of Obama foreign policy.
As the Republican candidate transitions from the long primary slog into the general election battle, his effort to cut down Obama on foreign policy and national security will sharpen. Naivety, appeasement, apologist and a menu of other unflattering descriptions are likely to be emanating from Romney's attack machine trying to cut down the president's perceived advantage on foreign policy. The president and his campaign team will be doing their best to ensure that advantage is maintained.
Romney's positioning in this particular battle arena is not new.
"Romney is going to do what presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, have done for years when going up against an incumbent, and that's to run to the right" of the incumbent, said James Lindsay with the Council on Foreign Relations.
North Korea is not the only global hot spot where Romney has taken on the president's record in foreign policy and national security. Iran, China, Russia and the war in Afghanistan are among the areas that have been targeted as ripe for criticizing Obama's stewardship.
When an open-mic caught Obama last month telling the Russian president that he would have more flexibility to deal with missile defense after the election, Romney smelled blood in the water.
"These are very unfortunate developments," Romney said the same day in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. Russia is "without question our number one geopolitical foe, they fight every cause for the world's worst actors, the idea that he has some more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed," he said.
In what is likely to be a continuing theme throughout the general election, the Obama campaign was quick to put out statements from foreign policy surrogates painting Romney as a foreign policy novice unprepared to take the reins in a time of war.
"Does Mitt Romney think Russia is a bigger threat to the U.S. today than a nuclear armed-Iran or the terrorists of al Qaeda?" asked Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. "This is yet another example of Mitt Romney's willingness to say anything to get elected, no matter how reckless it may be."
In a speech earlier this year to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC, Romney excoriated the administration's "policy of engagement with Iran," but erroneously asserted the president had opposed sanctions against Iran at that point. Supporters of the administration were quick to point out that the most crippling set of sanctions against Iran, since legislation was passed in the late 1990s, has occurred under Obama's watch.
When it comes to China, Romney has been critical of the administration's approach, saying he would penalize the country for its currency policy. He has also accused the administration of gutting the defense budget and of abandoning Israel, a dependable ally in an unsettled part of the world.
And from the beginning of his candidacy, Romney has criticized Obama's plan to drawdown the U.S. footprint in Afghanistan. Such decisions were driven by politics and failed to heed the advice of senior military officials, Romney has said. Romney says the scheduled pullout of troops is premature and could jeopardize any gains that have been made. But Romney himself has said troops need to come out as soon as possible, as judged the commanders on the ground.
Most polls on the subject show even the president's policy of a phased withdrawal by 2014 from Afghanistan to be to the right of the American public, with a majority calling for an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops. His handling of counterterrorism, highlighted by the killing of Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan compound, has handed the president some high-profile foreign policy triumphs.
Romney's campaign has added a list of foreign policy heavyweights from past Republican administrations who served in positions at the White House, State Department, Pentagon and the intelligence community. In an open letter to Obama, the team said Obama's inadvertent comments to the Russian president raised "questions about whether a new period of even greater weakness and inconstancy would lie ahead if you are re-elected."
The Obama campaign has in turn branded Romney an untested leader unsure of his standing on issues beyond the waters' edge.
"Gov. Romney has been all over the map on the key foreign policy challenges facing our nation today, offering a lot of chest thumping and empty rhetoric with no concrete plans to enhance our security or strengthen our alliances," Ben LaBolt, Obama's campaign spokesman, said in a statement last month.
So far, the power of incumbency seems to be playing to Obama's benefit. In a CNN/Opinion Research poll of 1,015 adult Americans conducted earlier this month, 52% said they saw Obama as being the candidate better able to handle the duties of commander-in-chief. Some 36% of those surveyed sided with Romney. The poll had a sampling error plus or minus 3 percentage points.
As the calendar draws closer to November, analysts who follow the race say Romney needs to remain cognizant of the risk of appearing too tough in his foreign policy rhetoric that presents an opening for the Obama campaign to paint him as reckless. At the same time, he can't appear to deliberately tone things down so much thereby inviting charges of changing his positions for political expediency.
With the economy and other domestic issues largely drowning out the discussion of foreign policy so far, it's unlikely to be a major discussion point in the campaigns, absent an unforeseen event, until later this year when the candidates debate each other. And that will be where the true test for Romney will likely emerge.
"It's easy to say Mr. President, I can do better on Iran, on China, on North Korea," says Lindsay with the Council on Foreign Relations. "What we have yet to see is whether or not Romney can generate in the answer to the obvious counterquestion from Barack Obama: 'OK, what would you do, and why should we believe it would work?' "