Due Diligence: Where the candidates differ on foreign policy


President Obama and Mitt Romney have been harsh critics of each other when it comes to foreign policy. But anyone who watched Monday night's debatelearned that there is little difference between the two men on most foreign policy issues.

Start with Iran. There were a few minor differences, but no major ones: Both men say they would do whatever is necessary to keep Iran from a nuclear weapon, and both expressed support for the sort of crippling sanctions the president has already put in place.

And that's just for starters. On Syria, neither candidate wants the U.S. military involved in the conflict. On Israel, both men say they would have the U.S. "stand with" the country if it is attacked. Both support pulling U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Both support the continued use of drone strikes on terror suspects, despite criticism of the Obama administration for doing so.

"Well I believe we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world," Romney said Monday. "And it's widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it, to continue to go after the people that represent a threat to this nation and to our friends."

Underneath all the agreement on issues, however, was one major difference between the two men. Romney has vowed to mandate that military spending be set at 4 percent of gross domestic product. If the economy doesn't tank, that means a significant increase in military spending -- $2.3 trillion over 10 years, according to an estimate.

And it's not just how much he wants to spend, it's how he wants to spend it. Mr. Obama got a lot of attention for a quip he made about Romney's support for expanding the Navy.

"You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916," the president said. "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

The use of "bayonets" is what got people's attention, but the underlying sentiment is what's more important. It illustrates the fact that Romney is more of a foreign policy traditionalist - he has many foreign policy advisers with ties to the Bush administration, and he described Russia as America's top geopolitical foe. His desire to build more Naval ships, like his desire to spend more on defense, is tied to a belief in the importance of a robust U.S. military presence around the world.

The president wants the military to focus more on nontraditional threats like al Qaeda, and no longer wants the United States to serve as the world's policeman. He noted on Monday that America spends more on the military than the next ten countries combined - which you only say if you think America is carrying too large a burden.

It can be difficult to tease out differences between the candidates on specific issues. But when it comes to the larger, overarching philosophy, there is a clear difference: Romney wants to spend more money to expand America's traditional military role in the world, while the president wants to transition to a new era in which America plays a fundamentally different role. And that philosophical chasm is more important than the lack of difference on many individual issues.