GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney has been criticized in the media for a lack of thoughtful or detailed foreign policy prescriptions, but the discord among Republicans in Congress last week showed why he might need to tread carefully on the subject as the new GOP standard-bearer.
With the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three others, as well as other attacks on U.S. diplomatic outposts in the Middle East dominating the news last week, competing schools of Republican thought played out in Congress, highlighting Romney's difficulty in saying more.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other tea-party-inspired Members called for cutting off all U.S. aid to Egypt and Libya. Arizona Sen. John McCain issued pleas for a more active role in supporting Arab efforts to oust dictators such as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Another set of GOP lawmakers, among them the would-be top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker - said they support U.S. involvement in the region but oppose more active intervention, which might draw the country into another Middle East conflict.
Romney's strongest and most-detailed declaration was to condemn the Obama administration for a statement put out by the U.S. embassy in Egypt that he found too conciliatory.
Republicans generally agree that President Barack Obama has been overly apologetic and too sensitive to the feelings of U.S. rivals, and they have said he has not been sufficiently supportive of U.S. allies such as Israel and Poland.
On Friday, Romney running mate Rep. Paul Ryan articulated the GOP consensus about the current administration.
"Amid all these threats and dangers, what we do not see is steady, consistent American leadership," the Wisconsin lawmaker told those assembled at the Values Voters Summit. "In the days ahead, and in the years ahead, American foreign policy needs moral clarity and firmness of purpose. Only by the confident exercise of American influence are evil and violence overcome."
But beyond statements like that, consensus breaks down. Neoconservatives want Romney to adopt a more muscular brand of foreign policy in which hard-nosed positions are backed up by overwhelming U.S. military strength. Isolationists like Paul want the United States to halt foreign aid. Then there are the realists who see value in continued aid, trade and diplomatic engagement.
Romney's reaction has been to articulate a series of aggressive approaches to the Middle East, Russia and China that might satisfy the hard-liners, while refusing to provide the details that might alienate others.
As a result, Republican and independent foreign policy experts say Romney's prescriptions lack a strategic framework that distinguishes him from Obama.
"They don't add up to a policy with any meaningful differences from that being pursued by the incumbent administration," said Chas Freeman, a former ambassador and career Foreign Service officer in both Republican and Democratic administrations.