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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.
And when he has given details, these experts say Ronmney's hard-line approaches could end up putting the United States in greater international conflicts.
"This is a governor and a businessman running essentially on economic issues," said Anthony Cordesman, a former national security aid to McCain who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "He doesn't really have a history of being briefed on national security and defense. It's now very clear this is not his natural area of strength."
On preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, for example, the Romney campaign said he would draw a clear "red line" that, if crossed, would trigger U.S. military action against Iran. Obama also has pledged prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, but he has refused demands by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to enunciate such a red line.
Romney "has said openly that he would outsource our Middle East policy to Israel," Freeman said. "That's quite remarkable. I don't think anyone in our history has ever run on a platform of outsourcing our foreign policy."
In March, Romney called Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe," prompting head-scratching among foreign policy experts, who see the relationship as far more nuanced given our working relationship with the former Cold War enemy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently used Romney's stance as ammunition to dig in on Moscow's opposition to a U.S. missile defense system in several European locations. Washington has always maintained that the missiles are a defense against a possible missile attack by Iran, but Russia sees it as a threat to its security.
"I'm grateful to him for formulating his stance so clearly because he has once again proven the correctness of our approach to missile defense problems," Putin said last week, according to the Associated Press.
Romney also has taken a hard-line stand toward China's moves to depress the value of its Yuan currency in an effort to undercut competition to its exports. Last week, during a campaign appearance in Fairfax, Va., he repeated his pledge to declare China a currency manipulator in his first day in office.
Most foreign policy experts say such a move would trigger a trade war with the nation's largest creditor. "It would put us into a confrontational, rather than a conciliatory mode," Freeman said.
Cordesman said such positions reflect the strong neo-conservative cast of his advisers.
"A lot of this, frankly, gives me the impression that he has a very weak foreign policy team, one that isn't politically astute, and which has ideological elements which aren't terribly practical," Cordesman said. "The danger for Romney is that he has allowed himself to be pushed into making statements that are too binding, with too clear a set of deadlines."
Cordesman said Romney still has time to present a more substantial vision of America's place in the world.
"If I were a senior Member of Congress, I would tell Romney you need much better advisers in terms of what you say publicly. And second, I would tell him he needs to broaden his foreign policy team in a hurry," Cordesman said. "This isn't a matter whether you're conservative about foreign policy or whether you take a strong position. It is simply a matter of sophistication and understanding."