Your humble blogger has been underwhelmed with Mitt Romney's foreign policy pronouncements to date. Sure, I thought what he was saying was far better than most of the rest of the GOP 2012 field, but that's like complimenting Moe on being the smart Stooge.
The past month or so have not helped matters. During this period, Romney has continued to harp on Obama's non-existent "apology tour", published an op-ed on China that the Hulk could have drafted, and labeled a dysfunctional and demographically dying state our number one geopolitical foe.
In fairness, the Romney campaign has a tough task. Obama's foreign policy has been far from perfect, but he's hit the key notes reasonably well. U.S. standing abroad has risen considerably, Osama bin Laden is dead, U.S. grand strategy has pivoted towards the most dynamic region in the world, and his Secretary of State is a badass texter. There are angles where Romney could try to hit Obama - the Iraq withdrawal, the planned drawdown in Afghanistan -- except that the American public overwhelmingly endorses these moves. That ground is not fertile. This has reduced the Romney campaign to do little but shout "Iran is dangerous! Israel is getting thrown under the bus!!" a lot. The fact that the Obama White House seems delighted to highlight this stuff is not a good sign for the Romney folk.
This is a shame. Foreign policy might actually matter in this campaign, and it would be nice if there was a genuine debate. For that to happen, however, the Romney campaign needs to actually mount a substantive critique as opposed to a purely oppositional one. They need to seize on an issue and show how it represents the flaws of Obama's foreign policy approach.
Might I suggest North Korea? From today's New York Times front-pager by Mark Landler and Jane Perlez:
With North Korea poised to launch a long-range missile despite a widespread international protest, the Obama administration is trying to play down the propaganda value for North Korea’s leaders and head off criticism of its abortive diplomatic opening to Pyongyang in late February....
[T]he administration’s options are limited. The United States will not seek further sanctions in the United Nations Security Council, this official said, because North Korea is already heavily sanctioned and Washington needs to preserve its political capital with China and Russia to win their backing for future measures against Syria and Iran. The more likely scenario at the United Nations is a weaker statement from the Council president.
With North Korea telling reporters that it had begun fueling the rocket, the launching appeared imminent, confronting the Obama administration with a new diplomatic crisis after an agreement that American officials had hoped would open a new chapter with a traditionally hostile and unpredictable nation.
White House officials moved aggressively to deflect criticism of that deal, which offered North Korea food aid in return for a pledge to suspend work on its uranium enrichment program and to allow international inspectors into the country.
Unlike the administration of President George W. Bush, this official said, the Obama administration did not give the North Koreans anything before they violated the agreement by announcing plans to go ahead with the satellite launching. And, he added, the administration expects the North Koreans to abide by the other terms of the deal if it hopes, as it has said, for a fuller diplomatic dialogue.
Still, for President Obama, who prided himself on not falling into the trap of previous presidents in dealing with North Korea, the diplomatic dead end has been a frustrating episode: proof that a change in leadership in Pyongyang has done nothing to change its penchant for flouting United Nations resolutions, paying no heed to its biggest patron, China, and reneging on deals with the United States.
This is an issue that the Romney campaign should be all over. The administration's policy of "strategic patience" followed by "let's make a deal with Kim the Younger" has not worked well. The DPRK highlights the Obama administration's reluctance to talk tough with China and the ways in which its nonproliferation policy seems to be... troubled. This is taking place in the most strategically interesting part of the world. In other words, this is an issue where Obama's record has been radically imperfect and a solid critique should resonate. Sure, there's no magic solution or anything, but attacking Obama on this issue is at least a way for Romney to articulate exactly what he means when he signals his hawkishness.
So let's see how the Romney campaign responds. Disappointingly, North Korea was not even mentioned in the Romney foreign policy team's open letter to Obama, and it's nowhere on Romney's campaign blog. If that doesn't change by the end of this week, then I'll know I don't really need to take his foreign policy pronouncements all that seriously.
I'm daring you, Mitt Romney. I'm double-dog-daring you. Let's see if and your team have got the foreign policy goods or not.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.