Where Obama, Romney stand on foreign policy challenges
September 17th, 2012
06:00 AM ET

Where Obama, Romney stand on foreign policy challenges

By Jamie Crawford

Editor’s Note: Over the next week, CNN's national security reporters and producers will be looking at some of the most poignant differences between the two candidates on the most pressing foreign policy issues. Watch for the stories all week on CNN. More from Election Center

The protests and violence at American diplomatic missions across the Middle East and North Africa last week steered the 2012 presidential race into somewhat unchartered territory - a debate over U.S. foreign policy.

While the topic certainly has not been absent in the rhetorical sparring between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, most of the campaign's focus thus far has been a battle over who has the best prescription to jolt a seemingly sluggish economic recovery.

But that changed last week. Romney's charge the United States was too quick to condemn a film that insulted Muslims before condemning the violence directed at American diplomatic missions abroad spurred Obama's claim that Romney had a tendency to "shoot first and aim later." And all this talk has opened a window on an area that is sure to consume a great deal of attention for whomever sits in the Oval Office next January.

The list of foreign policy challenges facing the United States is daunting - including an awakening in the Arab world with a direction still unknown, a looming nuclear crisis with Iran and an uncertain future in Afghanistan (and neighboring Pakistan) once U.S. troops withdraw in 2014.

And let's not forget a bloody civil war in Syria, where the fate of thousands of biological and chemical weapons also hang in the balance. Then there are fiscal issues, from debt crises plaguing Europe to economic and geo-political challenges posed by a rising China.

Here is a look at some of the most pressing foreign policy issues facing the United States, and how the candidates who seek to lead the country approach them.


As the tension over Iran's disputed nuclear program ratchets up in the face of Israeli discord over the pace of current sanctions designed to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions, both Obama and Romney agree that Iran must not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon.

"We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Obama said in a press conference earlier this year alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron.

More: What are your top election issues? Weigh in now

The Obama administration and European Union have launched parallel sanctions designed to squeeze Iran's petroleum sector and bring the economy to its knees as an incentive to get Iran to give up any military dimensions to its nuclear program.

In a recent interview with ABC News, Romney said he would draw the same line as Obama when it comes to Tehran's nuclear capacity.

"My red line is Iran may not have a nuclear weapon," he told ABC's George Stephanopoulos. "It is inappropriate for them to have the capacity to terrorize the world."

What ultimately constitutes that red line, though, is seemingly different for both men. For Obama, the Iranian government would have to take direct steps to actually acquire a weapon (which U.S. intelligence does not believe has happened yet), while Romney has said merely having a "nuclear capability" without actually moving ahead to produce a weapon would be a tipping point.

More: Netanyahu urges U.S. to set 'red line' for Iran


In Syria, where the carnage of the last year and a half has claimed tens of thousands of lives, the fate of the country's large stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and whether to arm the opposition forces battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad has drawn out differences between the two candidates.

What would trigger either overt or covert military involvement from the United States inside Syria?

"We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to the other players on the ground, that a red line for us is (when) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," Obama said in a White House press conference last month. "That would change my calculus. That would change my equation."

More: CNN/Facebook's 'I'm Voting' app, take the pledge

As to supporting al-Assad's opposition, the administration has provide funds and non-lethal equipment like communications gear. In addition, the CIA is aiding in vetting rebel members for other countries who may be providing arms on their own.

For Romney, the Obama administration's policy of not providing arms to the Syrian opposition - whose character and composition is still uncertain, according to administration officials - is a mistake. The former Massachusetts governor supports greater American involvement in Syria.

"Instead of watching what's happening in Syria from a dispassionate distance, I would be leading in Syria by encouraging our friends there like the Turks and the Saudis to provide weapons to the insurgents in Syria," he said at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual briefing this summer.

More: Syria explained: What you need to know

And Barbara Starr on Obama and Romney's red lines for Iran and Syria.


No single foreign policy issue has bedeviled more U.S. presidents than the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Unlike previous presidents, for whom Mideast peace was mainly a focus in their second term, Obama entered office determined to work with all parties involved in the process to find a workable plan. But the effort did not go far, as the Israeli government continued to construct settlements in Palestinian areas and a unilateral quest for statehood by the Palestinians at the United Nations brought talks to a halt.

The relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is cool, and while they have put on a public face of U.S./Israeli solidarity when they meet, it is understood the two don't have much of a personal rapport. Romney and Netanyahu, on the other hand, have a relationship that goes back decades from the time they were colleagues at the Boston Consulting Group.

While the style and rhetoric of Obama and Romney's approach to the Middle East may differ, there are rather modest differences in the substance of their positions on the conflict's root issues. Both men say their personal view is that Jersualem is the capital of Israel, but that issue must be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestinians - a policy shared by previous presidential administrations, from both parties.

In a May 2011 speech at the State Department, Obama called for a two-state solution based on borders that existed before the 1967 Six-Day war. He also proposed "mutually agreed swaps" of land as a basis of negotiations. In an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer during a visit to Jersualem this past July, Romney would not comment on what borders he'd propose, but said, "I will leave that to the negotiating parties themselves."

Throughout the campaign, Romney has accused Obama of "throwing allies like Israel under the bus" and not giving due credence to Israeli concerns over Iran. He has also pledged Israel would be the first country he would visit as president.

But while the personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is well documented, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN in July that the bond between Israel and the United States are "stronger and deeper than ever" under Obama.

Both presidential contenders have said they respect Israel's sovereign right to defend itself against perceived threats - an apparent reference to Israeli apprehensions over Iran's nuclear program.


With the war in Afghanistan set to enter its twelth year in October, U.S. forces are on schedule to end their combat role by the end of 2014. The current plan calls for only a small number of American troops to remain to train Afghan forces.

After years of military focus on Iraq, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009. At its peak, there were about 100,000 U.S. forces in the embattled country, intent on wrestling back control of areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan that had been taken over by the Taliban. That boost of troops was temporary and, by the end of September, all 30,000 extra troops will have been removed.

While Romney has called Obama's policy in Afghanistan a politically timed retreat, there is little evident daylight between them as to how they'd approach the U.S. military effort.

"Our goal should be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014," Romney said this month in a speech before a National Guard Association meeting in Reno, Nevada. "I will evaluate conditions on the ground and solicit the best advice of our military commanders," he said.

That's not much different than what Obama said last month, during a visit to the Army base of Fort Bliss in Texas.

"Next year, Afghans will take the lead for their own security. In 2014, the transition will be complete," he said then.

It's what happens once military operations cease where differences between the two candidates come into view.

"We are pursuing a negotiated peace. In coordination with the Afghan government, my administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban," Obama earlier this year, explaining his administration's policy of supporting reconciliation by all elements of Afghan society so long as minority and women's rights are respected, and violence is renounced.

Negotiating with the Taliban is a dangerous prospect, according to Romney.

"We don't negotiate with terrorists. I do not negotiate with the Taliban. That's something for the Afghans to decide how they're going to ... pursue their course in the future," he said last year during a Republican primary debate.

More: 'Green on blue' attacks in Afghanistan | Attackers wore U.S. uniforms


As commander in chief of the U.S. military, President Obama differs from Romney on what they see as the types of weapons and numbers of troops needed to defend the country.

In his remarks and position papers released by his campaign, Romney champions a large conventional force supplemented by 100,000 extra troops, which would bolster the entire military force to over 1.5 million.

"We must have a commitment," he said last week at an event in Virginia, "not just to more ships and more aircraft, but also, in my view, to more members of our armed forces."

In addition to extra troops, Romney has pledged to increase the Navy's shipbuilding rate from 9 to 15 new vessels a year, modernize existing weapons systems and establish a multilayered ballistic missile defense system. Romney has not said how he would pay for any of these measures.

With the war in Iraq over and military operations in Afghanistan winding down, Obama has said he wants to cut $500 billion in defense spending over the next decade. He does not support a second round of $500 billion in cuts that may take effect in January if Congress cannot reach an agreement on the federal budget.

The cuts in Obama's budget would get rid of older ships while delaying the construction of newer ones. His military would place more emphasis on small special forces teams that can deploy to hotspots worldwide, as well as the continued use of unmanned drones.

While drones and special forces would also play a role in Romney's defense strategy, the former governor says a strong and robust military is necessary to preserve America's leadership position in the world.

More from Barbara Starr on Obama and Romney's competing proposals for the U.S. military


From the early days of his campaign up to the present, Romney has maintained that China - through its monetary policy and trade practices - is cheating Americans out of good jobs and opportunities, as well as stealing its intellectual property and know-how.

"If I'm president of the United States, I will finally take China to the carpet and say, 'Look you guys, I'm gonna label you a currency manipulator and apply tariffs unless you stop those practices," he said at a campaign event earlier this year.

Like previous administrations, Obama has not taken the step of designating China a "currency manipulator" out of concern such a move could start a trade war with a nation that enjoys a $200 billion trade surplus with the United States and holds even larger sums of U.S. debt. But Obama has brought lawsuits against Beijing at the World Trade Organization.

"We're going to continue to be firm in insisting that they operate by the same rules that everybody else operates under," he said last year at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference.

On the sensitive issue of Taiwan, Obama has signed off on arms sales to the island - which China considers a renegade province - but he has refused to sell them advanced F-16 fighter jets. Romney has said he would sell additional arms to Taiwan and confront China more forcefully on its human rights record.

More: Obama and Romney differ on approaches to China and Russia


With Russia, Obama came to office looking to "reset" a relationship that become strained when George W. Bush was president. He negotiated a new arms control agreement, and Russian assent to opening crucial supply lines for coalition forces in Afghanistan.

As to Romney, earlier this year, he told CNN that Russia was, "without question, our number one geopolitical foe." He has said he will re-evaluate the arms control treaty, and will confront the Kremlin on its human rights record.

"Under my presidency, our friends will see more loyalty and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone," Romney said at the recent Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida.

Romney has taken issue with the Obama administration's cancellation of plans, under Bush, to put missile defense components in Poland. But it should be noted that the United States is involved with, and supports, a NATO-sponsored missile defense shield that would host interceptors, ships and radars in Poland, Romania, Spain and Turkey. Russia has repeatedly voiced its disagreement with the NATO plan.


For an issue that was front and center for the past decade, and took the country to war, terrorism has not gotten the attention it once did on the campaign trail.

The Obama administration has emphasized the use of unmanned drones to take out terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. They have been used more frequently than during the Bush administration, and are seen as an effective tool of counter-terrorism that does not put U.S. troops in harms way.

But while the use of drones has expanded, Obama said deciding to deploy them presents significant challenges.

"That's something that you have to struggle with," Obama told CNN's Jessica Yellin in a recent interview. "If you don't, then it's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules thinking that the ends always justify the means. That's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country."

And while he moved to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay at the beginning of his administration, those efforts were blocked by Congress. He supports military tribunals for accused terrorists, but says he would like to see justice in federal courts.

For Romney, terrorists should be treated as enemy combatants, jailed at Guantanamo and tried by the military. He has said he would also allow more aggressive interrogation techniques on terrorism suspects.

Obama eliminated the enhanced interrogation techniques used during the Bush administration such as waterboarding, labeling such practices as torture. Romney has not specified what type of techniques his administration would employ.

More: 11 years after 9/11: Who are the terrorists?

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Filed under: Afghanistan • China • Iran • Obama • Romney • Russia • Syria • Terrorism
soundoff (865 Responses)
  1. sj8970

    the US should support israel diplomatically and with nonviolent assistance, but there is zero support here for fighting for israel. certain american jewish groups (AIPAC, Jewish Republicans) claim that it is a "moral obligation" of the US to fight for israel, but only their own members actually believe that, and they never send their sons to serve. in the end, if it is in the US' interest, there may be an attack on iran, but i feel that the US will not go to war for israel.

    November 4, 2012 at 12:01 am | Reply
  2. edgyone

    Didn't Romney reverse every stance to agree with Obama in the third debate? There is no difference on foreign policy between the two now, right? Or is Romeny the kind of person that would say anything to get elected? Don't let that empty suit into office. OBAMA 2012!!!

    November 3, 2012 at 1:37 am | Reply
  3. StanCalif

    It's a big shame on us Americans that we ignore the huge influence Israel has in our government. Our politicians constantly declare Israel "our best friend, our closest ally"! I truly respect Obama for his strong efforts to keep Israel from starting our next war. Israel is not our "friend"! Israel rants and raves about Iran, who they claim wants Israel wiped off the map! Meanwhile, Israel continues its efforts to wipe Palestinians off the map! Surely not a stated goal, but in practice this is what is truly going on. Israel can't wipe Iran off the map so they conjure up schemes to get us to do their dirty work! Vote for Romney and you vote for war against Iran! Soley for Israel's benefit!!!

    November 2, 2012 at 7:29 am | Reply
  4. godcil

    Who eva wins doesn't mater. Let God deliver America frm herself. The US healing coms wen her president seeks d God of their fathers who establised d nation on God's Word.

    October 30, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Reply
    • Anita Voltaire

      Godcil, I'm a 56 years young black female, And I have to say, I care about who wins. But your comment touched my heart, and you're right! Whom so ever wins!! Let them put GOD first and formost!!! Then if by chance Romney/Ryan win, If they put God almighty first, the country second. then this world may have a chance to survive. I think after the election the whole Nation should stop take a moment and Pray for the world, and the people running it.( OBAMA/BIDEN I'll pray before the election that my canidates r re-elected )Lets have A National Prayer Day!!!!

      November 1, 2012 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  5. godcil

    The truth is that the US is falling down speedily and China is rising up quickly. The day the US president wl seek help from the God of their fathers who established their nation, that is when their domestic troubles wl diminish and the foreign nations posing a threat wl giv a listening ear. May God deliver America frm herself.

    October 30, 2012 at 8:22 am | Reply
  6. t8kiteasy2

    Just look at all the good things happening. Al Quaida making a strong comeback, The Middle East in disaray, We won't even admit when terrorist attacks are striking our very own embassies and killing our Ambassadors, not to mention we have a stronger relationship with Iran, Venezuala, Syria, and now the Muslim Brotherhood than ever before. Why wouldn't we vote for Mr. Obama. Think how much better it will be after another four years. It is a great time to be a terrorist.

    October 24, 2012 at 11:42 am | Reply
    • John

      Obama or Romney, both work and die for Israel , they do not represent the United States, they represent only the jews, screw them both, where is the truth American Patriot RON PAUL!!! The only American willing to fight for Americans and will not back down from the terrorist state of Israel

      October 26, 2012 at 1:38 pm | Reply
    • Francis Smidt

      The muslium brotherhood is a front for the musluim army wing of the musluim reglion its designed to kill infidels (that be You ) our policeys in the world is withdraw and reteat Obama is a man who believes we as a nation is to powerful and need to be trim down to size that why his libya veiw got four american kill if re elected we will be at the mercy of the UN.Maybe you believe that to be good ,but its not consitutional.

      October 30, 2012 at 1:53 am | Reply
  7. WAB


    October 23, 2012 at 1:30 am | Reply
  8. funnyface

    We should all be asking can we afford another war if sovote for Rommey. We have one now were trying to get out of we need to really think about this.

    October 21, 2012 at 8:47 am | Reply
  9. Blueangel

    If we would just mind our own business and keep all out money home paying towards the debt for 5 years, we would be out of trouble. If the rest of the world wants to live like that and continue supporting corrupt governments, then let them. Let's feed our own people before we go around feeding children thousands of miles away. Medical care too!

    October 19, 2012 at 5:06 pm | Reply
  10. Vote 2012

    Round 3 TKO, President Obama will win. Mitt Romney don't know a thing about foreign policy except eager to start another way so he can keep filling his off shore bank accounts. Condalisa Rice is following Paul Ryan around schooling him on Foreign Policy-lol. Why wasn't that Romney idiot arrested for President Obama. Caught on camera saying he wants to take a swing at President Obama is no joke, should have been classified as a threat.

    October 19, 2012 at 10:45 am | Reply
  11. danny

    We honestly just need to stay out of foreign affairs, rase tarrifs, and improve homeland security. That will create jobs, and keep business in the US.

    October 11, 2012 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • chris

      Indeed sir indeed.

      October 19, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
  12. thao

    i think B.Obama win.

    October 8, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  13. Thor

    People don't do a whole lot of research. Obama created a committee dedicated to investigate illegal trade practices in China, while Mitt Romney on the other hand has packaged jobs and put a nice bow on it for Chinese sweatshops. The only thing romney supports is his magic underwear and personal profits at the expense of others

    October 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Westland

      It makes little differences who wins the debate or the presidency. The biggest lobby in the history of America "AIPAC" always runs the USA......How long will the people tolerate this?

      October 14, 2012 at 6:11 pm | Reply
  14. Ann

    I think it is a shame how ill informed the majority of our society is. This current administration has zero foreign policy. Everyone criticized W. Bush for the poor standing we were in with the world- we are in a worse state currently under Obama. Leave the country, go to Europe, serve in the military- and you will see how absolutely foolish we look. We have zero respect. There are no "negotiations" with the Taliban. That is an absolute joke. There is no "good relationship" with Isreal. And there is a huge difference in what Romney said vs what Obama said regarding afghanistan. Romney said take advice from ground leaders. Obama said it WILL end. They WILL assume responsibility. "more special forces..." good luck with that. and we will be where Bill Clinton left us. In a huge troop deficit. In case you all forgot- the armed forces provides JOBS! Full time jobs with benefits! Shut it down, and 18 year old kids are unemployed. Military installations provide JOBS. Ships and aircraft= JOBS. We are in bad shape you guys. Wake up. Romney isn't great, but stop believing Obama is.

    October 6, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
    • Jarhead

      I don't think 18 year olds being out of a job is something to cry about. They can live at home like all the other 18 year olds. Our economy will not know the difference.

      October 19, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
    • 2020

      Ann, you live in the dungen for too long. Bin Laden is dead. Iraq war was over, our soliders came home. Afghanstan war is closing too.

      You don't need to believe anything, no one ask you to. Just one thing, believe in facts, as stated above.

      Let the Middle Class grow again, without the burden of war.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:06 am | Reply
    • Gangnam style

      That's very selfish of you. In order for you to have a job, you are willing to sacrifice other american lives – policing the world in NOT USA job. It's the UN. Ck ...ck..ck. No more unnecessary war. Let other countries take care their own problems. We have enough domestic problems.

      October 19, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
      • Bobyboooo

        I'm guessing the most appropriate following question would be "Who provides most of the UN funding and troop backing?". Probably the world police...United States.

        October 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
    • Oakspar77777

      That is true – the only government job the President doesn't like is a military one.

      At $100,000 dollars each (enough to cover the cost, training, and salary included, of a fresh recruit), Obama's "shovel ready" 700 billion stimulous could have employed 7 million soldiers (creating 7 million new jobs), or doubled our current number of troops for his entire tenure (1.5 million jobs, but held for 4 years).

      That would have stimulated the economy, given education and job skills to the lost generation of 20-something men now living with momma, and turned the Afghanistan push into a pounding.

      October 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Reply
      • Mike

        Your theory sound good to you, except for the fact that these 20-somethings DO NOT want to enroll in military training. The option is there RIGHT NOW. The problem that you are missing is the fact that people CHOOSE NOT to become a "fresh recruit". And not because there is no money for the "fresh recruit" job.....

        October 11, 2012 at 11:43 am |
    • WAB


      October 23, 2012 at 1:27 am | Reply
    • StanCalif

      Military jobs add nothing to our GDP! We cannot grow a domestic economy by super charging the military!
      Romney's plan would require starting another war. I think that most of us "taxpayers" are fed up with this! Our wars resolve nothing! Iraq now goes back to what Iraq has always been. Afghanistan cannot be "converted" along as Karsai could care less about his own people. Pakistan is another "hopeless cause". Egypt, Lybia, Syria and even Israel will never be anything close to what we have in the USA. These people really have no true desire to "fix" their country's problems. All that matters is getting free money from the US which the elite deposit in Swiss banks!

      October 27, 2012 at 8:46 am | Reply
  15. pers vernandez

    OBAMA IS VERY SOFT TOWARD CHINA. IF Obama win this coming election US will lost in Asia for coming years. Obama win China gain.

    October 4, 2012 at 9:19 am | Reply
  16. Bush Beers


    October 3, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • MichellePasadena

      Isn't it time for the media to report facts? I'm an independent woman voter who voted for President Obama. I've managed to obtain facts and realize now that fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. The lying it seems has been coming from the Obama Administration. I can admit I made a mistake.

      October 16, 2012 at 7:26 pm | Reply
  17. Carl

    Can anyone see the similarity between Romney and Bush? Both republicans want war. That'll only bring us into an even bigger debt. Obama will raise taxes on the wealthy, he could possibly end the war because he isn't so ignorant as Romney. Boom the world could be in better shape if we Americans make the right choice.

    October 3, 2012 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • Rones

      Why do you say so? It was Obama who started bombing Libya for more than 60 days without being approved from Congress.

      October 5, 2012 at 7:39 am | Reply
      • Bobyboooo

        Libya wasn't even remotely a war. How about the first Bush that put us in on bombing Iraq regularly until we decided to topple Saddam when he took office. People forget we pretty regularly bombed Iraq since desert storm.

        That Libya action was much more like the Clinton Tomahawk attacks on numerous theaters.

        October 19, 2012 at 3:12 pm |
  18. David

    Obama is a complete failure it must not be given a second term.

    September 29, 2012 at 2:09 am | Reply
    • jman

      and you're an idiot.

      October 1, 2012 at 4:11 am | Reply
      • Wheeler

        No you are an idiot if you really think Obama has done a good job. Lol

        October 14, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • DonnaD

      Daivd, your're a complete moron!

      October 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
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