Since I recently wrote a column arguing that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have essentially the same foreign policy, I was intrigued by the headline over the right lead story in the national edition of today's New York Times, which claims "Obama and Romney Differ Sharply on Mideast Course." The online version of the article has a less startling headline ("Benghazi and Arab Spring Rear Up in U.S. Campaign") but still asserts that the two presidential candidates have "differing views" in the "fierce debate over what role the United States should seek to play in shaping the new order emerging from the revolts of the Arab Spring." How so? While "Mr. Obama has emphasized cautious restraint, out of philosophical support for Arab demands for self-governance and out of a conviction that events in the region are largely beyond American control," the Times reports, "Mr. Romney has stressed his wariness of the popular uprisings and vowed a more assertive approach to influencing their outcome." So Obama is cautious, while Romney is wary. Sharp differences!
One might question the adjectives used by the Times. Obama, the cautious candidate, unilaterally launched an illegal air war against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, taking sides in that country's civil conflict with little idea of who the rebels were or what would happen in the aftermath of Qaddafi's fall. Presumably that was an example (along with the president's death-dealing drones?) of what the Times calls Obama's "soft touch" in the region. Romney, the wary candidate, criticized Obama for not acting more quickly in Libya and for ruling out the use of ground troops.
Romney takes a similar "me too, but more so" approach to Syria, saying the U.S. should directly arm the rebels fighing Bashar al-Assad's regime rather than doing so by proxy, which is Obama's current policy. According to the Times, the Obama administration worries that "it has too little sway over the direction of the insurgency, the influence of Islamist extremists, the potential that the weapons might be turned on neighbors like Israel or the likelihood of a sectarian blood bath." Romney, by contrast, sees providing weapons to the opposition as "a way of buying an American say in whatever comes next." In what sense does that position illustrate Romney's "wariness of the popular uprisings"?
Romney's criticism of Obama for sticking with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak too long also suggests something other than wariness. But surely Romney approves of Obama's approach to the new Islamist government in Egypt, where the president "has resisted attaching any conditions to the $1.5 billion in annual American aid…in order to preserve friendly relations and long-term influence." Although that sounds like Romney's argument for arming the Syrian rebels, he says Obama is wrong again, because he should cut aid whenever the Egyptian government makes a decision contrary to U.S. interests. It is almost as if Romney feels driven to criticize Obama no matter what position he takes.
Political candidates have a strong incentive to exaggerate small differences. Unfortunately, the press, which should be scrutinizing those claims instead of uncritically repeating them, also has a strong incentive to find differences instead of similarities, because the truth is not as exciting or dramatic as the fake debate. The truth is that Obama and Romney are barely distinguishable on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, and their commonality has nothing to do with caution.