Call it the “friend-enemy” distinction.
Mitt Romney has assembled a foreign-policy platform rooted in the belief that adversaries such as Russia must be confronted for backsliding on democracy and that Israel must be supported in the face of common threats such as a nuclear-armed Iran.
Advisers to the former Massachusetts governor contrast that approach and a belief in “American exceptionalism” with those of President Obama, whose foreign policy they characterize as putting its energy into trying to bargain with enemies while taking friends for granted.
“Obama believes that no, you start with your enemies, you see where you can cut deals and negotiate,” said Mr. Cohen, who heads the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. “Under the Obama approach, your friends are kind of an afterthought, and in some cases, if its useful to rough up your friends a little bit, you do that, too.”
As an example of the latter, Mr. Cohen cited Mr. Obama’s awkward relations with Israel. He also said the administration’s foundering “reset” with Russia, its initial overtures to Iran and its 2010 appointment of an ambassador to Syria all showed how fruitless it is to try to cut deals with adversaries.
If Mr. Romney wins the presidential election in November, his foreign policy will be anchored to what one adviser describes as a “Reaganesque” philosophy that a robust U.S. military conveys as much meaning to those watching from abroad as to the men and women of the armed services at home.
“My experience with Mitt Romney is that he believes strongly in peace through strength,” said Richard S. Williamson, a senior foreign policy adviser to the Romney campaign who held key positions under Presidents Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
“I had the privilege of working on Reagan’s senior White House staff, and so I had a pretty good sense of the man,” said Mr. Williamson. “I find Romney very similar in his approach. I would say Romney’s view is very Reaganesque.”
The former Massachusetts governor “believes strongly in American exceptionalism, that America is a great country and the world is a better place if America leads,” Mr. Williamson said. “This is a huge contrast with Barack Obama. I don’t think anyone would argue that Mr. Obama believes in American exceptionalism. He believes that you should ‘lead from behind,’ whatever the heck that means.”
But while Mr. Romney has compiled a star-studded roster of nearly two dozen foreign policy advisers, the vast majority are known more for their alignment with post-9/11 foreign policy of George W. Bush than the Cold War-era Reagan administration. Mr. Williamson is one of only a few whose resumes reach back to that time.
Others, including former counterterrorism chief Cofer Black, former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, for Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and former U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, are more known for service under George W. Bush — leaving open the possibility that Mr. Romney is as inclined to embrace a Bush-style “with us or against us” foreign policy as anything else.
Such assertions offer a broad-stroke outline of how the Romney camp thinks U.S. foreign policy should be adjusted but sheds little light on what, precisely, Mr. Romney would do differently.
More neutral analysts, not tied to the Romney campaign, say this is his weak point.
“Rather than taking clear positions, there’s a lot of political positioning critical of Obama, but not really offering any clarity about what he would do differently on key foreign policy issues like Iran, Afghanistan and Israel,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress.