Last Monday, two days before Mitt Romney departed for London, Israel, and Poland, the Obama campaign held a conference call with reporters in order to frame their opponent’s trip. “The bar really is whether or not Mitt Romney is finally ready to shed a little light on what appears to be the secrecy of his foreign policy plans,” said Robert Gibbs, an Obama surrogate. The campaign argued: Romney’s trip was going to be long on photo ops and short on substance because he is unable to articulate areas of genuine contrast with Obama’s foreign policy.
Yet, in just 36 hours in Israel, Romney revealed two areas of sharp difference with Obama: Jerusalem and Iran. And those issues really serve as stand-ins for much bigger ones.
Romney went out of his way more than once to refer to Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in contrast to President Obama. Although in 2008 Obama called Jerusalem the “eternal and undivided capital” of Israel, he has backtracked—so thoroughly that State Department and White House spokesmen have been recently caught in painfully awkward exchanges with reporters trying to extract whether Obama recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
The controversy has real substance, and Romney’s position has implications far beyond the status of Jerusalem: It is a pledge to stop subordinating American policy and conforming America's treatment of her allies to the desires of the “international community.” No more "engagement" for engagement's sake, which under Obama, like Jimmy Carter before him, is often bad news for Israel.
On Iran, Obama has been waging a campaign of deterrence against Israeli military action by warning that has administration would withhold support in its aftermath. In December, Defense Secretary Panetta told a Brookings forum that after an Israeli strike, the U.S. “would obviously be blamed and we could possibly be the target of retaliation,” that there would be “severe economic consequences,” that a strike could spark a conflagration that would “not only involve many lives” but “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.” Or as Michele Flourney, a former Pentagon official and currently a top Obama campaign foreign policy surrogate, said recently, an Israeli strike would “undermine the legitimacy of the action in the eyes of the broader international community and would most importantly undermine the ability of the international community to come together.”
During his trip, Romney said the opposite. His foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, told reporters: “If Israel has to take action on its own in order to stop Iran from developing that capability the governor would respect that decision.” In his Jerusalem speech, Romney said, "In the final analysis, of course, no option should be excluded. We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and that it is right for America to stand with you."
The implication seems clear: While Obama has been undermining the credibility of sanctions and diplomacy by attacking the prospect of military action, a Romney administration would put the Iranian regime on notice that it is not only vulnerable to attack, but that America would stand with its ally should it decide to strike.
So on both Jerusalem and Tehran: stark contrasts, different ideas, different policies. The Obama campaign challenged Romney before he departed that he would have to show what he'd do differently. And he has.
One final thought: Has any Republican candidate for president ever made such a strongly and thoroughly pro-Israel declaration as Romney did yesterday in Jerusalem? And will this, in the end, be the legacy of Obama's four-year campaign of pressure and criticism against Israel—a pushback that has only served to clarify, deepen, and solidify the pro-Israel sentiments of Republicans?