If the election between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were held today, purely on national security issues, the result would be a likely landslide for Obama.
In a Washington Post-ABC News poll conducted last week, Americans said they trusted Obama over Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, to do a better job handling international affairs by a margin of 53 percent to 36 percent.
Obama got a boost when United States Special Forces killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan last year, but his policies in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been overwhelmingly popular.
With regard to Iraq, a CNN/ORC poll taken in December revealed that 66 percent of Americans opposed the war while 78 percent approved of the president’s decision to remove all U.S. combat troops from Iraq.
On Afghanistan, the Washington Post-ABC News poll also shows that most Americans may want U.S. troops out of Afghanistan even sooner than Obama’s withdrawal date of December 2014. Sixty-six percent of respondents said that the war in Afghanistan was not worth fighting, while only 30 percent said that it was. Sixty-two percent said they believed Afghans oppose what the U.S. is trying to do in Afghanistan.
Romney’s position on Afghanistan is out of step with prevailing opinion about the war. While he does not call for an open-ended U.S. military commitment, he questions the “mixed message” to both our allies and the Taliban of an announced withdrawal date, claiming there is “no military rationale” for it, and asks whether the date was “politically inspired.” As president, Romney would order a review of Afghan policy and promises that his approach would be “based on conditions on the ground as assessed by our military commanders.”
On Iran, both Obama and Romney have stated that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. While the Obama Administration has implemented unprecedented energy and financial sanctions on Iran and taken “no option off the table,” Romney has sought to craft a more hawkish stance, including developing a credible military option, implementing even more sanctions, supporting the Iranian opposition, and establishing a “fully capable missile defense system.”
Romney may draw greater attention to differences between himself and Obama on Iran, especially if the nuclear talks in Istanbul on April 14 prove inconclusive, and if there appears to be divergences in the Israeli and U.S. approaches to Iran. Romney proposes strengthening US-Israeli cooperation on Iran. He has said he would “repair relations with Israel, increase military coordination and assistance, and enhance intelligence sharing to ensure that our allied capabilities are robust and ready to deal with Iran.” Romney might also reference his close personal relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, drawing a contrast with President Obama, whose relationship with the Israeli prime minister presumably is not as close.
Recent polling also suggests the potential for Iran as a “break out” campaign issue. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted March 8-11 revealed that 56 percent of Americans support the U.S. taking military action against Iran “if there is evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons.” The same poll reported 62 percent supporting Israel taking such action. Finally, 53 percent of Americans agreed with “military action against Iran if there is evidence that Iran is building nuclear weapons even if it causes gasoline and fuel prices in the United States to go up.”
The point here is neither to argue the merits, drawbacks, efficacy, or consequences of the use of force against Iran, nor to claim that polling should drive any such decision. It is rather to observe that Obama has so far carried the day on national security issues, which have barely registered compared to the economy and jobs at this very early stage of the presidential campaign. As Afghanistan and Iraq are likely winners for Obama, and losers for Romney, Iran may therefore prove to be the international issue that provokes the most consequential debate of the presidential campaign.
Andrew Parasiliti is executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US (www.iiss.org) and a Board member of Al-Monitor.