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Opinion

In presidential debate, President Obama is no dove, and Mitt Romney is no hawk (+video)

President Obama told Mitt Romney in last night's presidential debate: 'You say you would do the same things we did, but you would just say them louder.' Commentators draw sharp distinctions between the two men, but their foreign policy similarities are more striking than the differences.

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When it comes to Iran, Obama started off trying to engage the mullahs, but quickly toughened his policy to encompass a tough sanctions regime and reported covert and cyber campaigns to slow the nuclear program. Romney has been critical of Obama’s approach and described the leadership in Tehran as “unalloyed evil," but his stated policy on Iran is not noticeably different.

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He may be more likely than Obama to authorize a military strike to interrupt the nuclear program. Then again, the riskiness of that option stayed George W. Bush’s hand – and Romney is a more cautious politician than Mr. Bush.

There are, of course, many foreign policy differences between the two men. One of the largest, and oddest, concerns Russia, where Obama has “reset” the relationship, while Romney has vowed to “reset the reset.” Romney would also likely be more pro-Israel than Obama. While Obama is a supporter of the United Nations, Romney is skeptical of multilateral institutions and promised to “return these bodies to their proper role.”

But the actual policy differences on these fronts are less than is generally believed.

The most important contrast lies in their foreign-policy experience. Obama has grown enormously in office to become a skillful and effective commander-in-chief; if Romney were elected, he would have his own learning curve to climb.

The biggest question mark concerns personnel. After nearly four years, we have a sense of the staff template Obama prefers: highly competent, disciplined, and loyal policy engineers who are largely content to implement his vision rather than argue with him over it. Romney is a more protean character, so the identity of his foreign policy picks would matter more.

Still, it is hard to discern a fundamental clash between the two men when it comes to their foreign policy world views. And even if a President Romney were minded to make instinctive, bold decisions, the lessons the United States has learned so painfully in the past decade would constrain any tendencies toward adventurism.

Americans have a foreign policy choice to make in November. But the world is not at a crossroads because of it.

Michael Fullilove is the executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney, Australia and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. This op-ed is drawn from a new Lowy Institute paper, "The Audacity of Reasonableness."

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