When Mitt Romney faces off against President Obama on Tuesday night in the first of their debates to involve foreign policy, the Republican challenger will take a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook by attempting to portray the Democratic incumbent as the second coming of President Carter, and himself as the champion of the Gipper's "peace through strength" mantra.
With a confidence that seemed out of reach six months ago — when Mr. Obama enjoyed a hefty lead in the polls on foreign policy — Mr. Romney will point to the past month's desecration of American flags and the killing of a U.S. ambassador in the Middle East as proof of the president's failure to maintain American power abroad.
Some conservatives will cheer Mr. Romney's rhetoric, but analysts generally say that it will be little more than that: When it comes down to details, they say, the foreign policy the Republican ultimately will pursue is unlikely to stray far from Mr. Obama's or those of his predecessors.
"He really isn't that different from Obama," said Joseph Nye, a Clinton administration official and foreign policy professor at Harvard. "He's trying hard, but when you get past the rhetoric of 'We need to be strong' and you ask what do we really need to do, it's not there."
Syria, where an armed rebellion is battling the regime of President Bashar Assad to a stalemate, likely will be a chief flash point of Tuesday's debate, which will have a town-hall format but be devoted in equal parts to foreign policy and domestic policy. The first Obama-Romney clash centered exclusively on domestic policy, and the third will be devoted to foreign policy.
Mr. Romney has slammed the administration for failing to lead an international search for solutions to the Syrian bloodshed. When it comes to a Romney White House, he says he would work with such U.S. allies as Saudi Arabia to arm Syrian opposition rebels — an approach analysts say the Obama administration already is doing, albeit clandestinely.
Mr. Romney also calls out the administration for being soft on Iran and blames it for failing to prop up pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009. But the Republican nominee stops short of saying his own White House would back a pre-emptive military strike. He hasn't spelled out any other measures beyond the types of sanctions that the Obama administration already has spearheaded, including an international oil embargo that is crippling the Islamic republic's economy.
Indeed, the chief claim Mr. Romney will make is that Mr. Obama lacks a coherent doctrine that American allies can rely on and American foes can react to — the sort of defining U.S. role that he says created peace in the decades since World War II.
It was Reagan who pushed the "peace through strength" mantra to the fore of political debate. In 1980, his campaign ran a TV attack ad claiming Mr. Carter wasted four years in the White House failing to understand "that it takes strong leadership to keep the peace" and that "weak leadership will lose it."
Switch out "Carter" for "Obama," and the Romney camp's message parallels the Reagan-era ad with almost plagiaristic precision.
Alex Wong, the Romney campaign's foreign policy director, told reporters during a conference call last week that the former Massachusetts governor's philosophy is one "of peace through strength that began with Truman, that continued through Kennedy, continued through Reagan and now to candidate Romney."
"The only two exceptions," said Mr. Wong, "have been Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama."
Nowhere will that argument be more pointed on Tuesday night than toward Mr. Obama's Middle East posture. Mr. Romney can be expected to criticize the administration's reaction to, and honesty about, the Muslim world's recent protests against America, as well as the Sept. 11 terrorist attack that killed American Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya.
But when it comes to an overall alternative strategy for Libya, left-leaning analysts said Mr. Romney is unlikely to offer much more than a snub to Mr. Obama for "leading from behind" in last year's NATO intervention.
"Romney is a guy saying nothing but with an impressive delivery," said Gordon Adams, another Clinton-era policymaker, who teaches foreign affairs at American University. "He's holding his own without being forced into the details because in the details, he's out of his depth."
The Romney camp "sees attacking Obama as weak as a good political opening," said Mr. Adams, who noted the "tons of advice" Mr. Romney is receiving on foreign policy "from a very dispersed group of advisers coming from positions all over the map."
From neoconservatives such as John R. Bolton to more diplomacy-centered internationalists like Richard Williamson, the Romney foreign policy tent is ideologically broad. But everyone in the tent rallies around the same rhetorical pole of "peace through strength" — which they say is an important difference with Mr. Obama's.
"Peace through strength is a slogan," said James Phillips, a senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, "that symbolizes a number of more concrete policy positions, especially with regard to the need to keep a strong military, to set a certain tone in which diplomacy is strongly supported by military action — as opposed to the Obama-Carter approach, where military action is essentially ruled out in a way that, I think, unfortunately weakens our diplomacy."
Not everyone agrees.
While Mr. Obama has withdrawn U.S. forces from the heart of the Middle East in Iraq, he has kept up a ubiquitous drone war against suspected terrorists across the region and has green-lighted a variety of clandestine military operations, including the one that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
"I don't think historians will look back 20 years from now and say, 'Ah, this is the man who abandoned peace through strength.' I mean, it just doesn't fit the facts," Mr. Nye said.
Others are less eager to accept "peace through strength" as anything more than trumped-up campaignspeak.
"It might have been a doctrine back during the Cold War," said Xenia Dormandy, a senior fellow at Chatham House, the London-based foreign affairs think tank. "But I don't think it has any relevance in the post-Cold War era."
Foreign policy challenges today "ignore borders, are often led not by states but non-states, and are often intangible, for example, energy limitations, environmental issues, pandemics and terrorism," Mrs. Dormandy said. "They don't lend themselves to these kinds of one-on-one staring-down battles in the same way that the Cold War did and therefore they need a different set of tools."
But in a presidential race, voters "want simple ideas, simply expressed," she said, adding that peace through strength is "an enormously simple and therefore powerful rhetorical flourish."
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