Failure to Launch

Why Romney's critique of Obama's foreign policy record will not fly

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

Mitt Romney picked a bad day to launch a blistering attack on Barack Obama's foreign policy. As Romney was speaking to the annual gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, charging Obama with weakness, betrayal and mendacity, NBC News and the Wall Street Journal released a new poll. It turns out that on "handling of foreign policy," Americans prefer Obama to Romney by 15 points.

Romney's principal charge against Obama is that he has angered America's allies and emboldened its enemies. Again, it turns out that some recently released data contradict the claim. The Pew Foundation released one of its global surveys in June, soliciting opinions from several countries around the world. When asked if they have "some" or a "great deal of" trust in President Obama, the numbers are overwhelmingly positive. In Britain, for example, which is Romney's first stop on his foreign tour, 80% of people trust Obama, compared with 16% who trusted George W. Bush. All countries surveyed have much higher approval ratings of America in 2012 than they did in 2008, when Bush was President. (It's fair to note that the numbers have come down from their 2009 highs, just after Obama's Inauguration, when expectations were soaring.)

In order to give substance to his claim that Obama has let down our allies, Romney dwells at length on a minor issue: the supposed humiliation of the Poles and Czechs over the building of an antimissile system. That is presumably why Romney chose to visit Poland, a country where he thinks attitudes toward Obama will be distinctly cool. That narrative is often repeated on the right. On July 23 the conservative commentator George Weigel of National Review argued that the Poles are extremely nervous about this election, worried that Obama might remain in the White House and continue his allegedly anti-Polish policies.

The Pew survey, however, gives us the numbers. Poles think Obama deserves a second term by a ratio of nearly 5 to 3. In the Czech Republic, the ratio is more than 6 to 1. It was so much easier to characterize whole countries' attitudes in the old days, when nobody did polls in them!

There are parts of the world where approval rates for Obama have dropped significantly and where America is viewed with suspicion. They include Russia, China and the countries of the Arab world. This would suggest that Obama has not given these countries what they want, thus earning their disfavor. That is precisely what Romney seems to want in his speech--approval from allies and disapproval from adversaries.

And consider the reasons Obama's ratings are low in the Arab world. The two strongest justifications given by people in every Arab country that was surveyed are, first, that he has not been fair in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and second, that he has used drone attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan to go after terrorists. In other words, the reason Obama has lost some of his global popularity is that he is perceived as too pro-Israeli and too hawkish.

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