RomneyDiplomatic gaffes on culture as a determinant of economic performance aside, Mitt Romney’s recent trip to Israel was perhaps one of the most revelatory moments in this year’s race to the White House.

Sure, the Jewish vote is important – it holds the power to determine swing states like Florida – as was, no doubt, the courtship of donors like Sheldon Adelson. But Jewish voters only make up 2-4 percent of the American electorate, and have consistently leant left since FDR’s time; even in the wake of Eisenhower’s defeat of Hitler, Republicans only managed 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1956, and Obama garnered 78 percent of the vote in 2008. What Romney’s visit to the Holy Land really showcased was the rhetorical arm-wrestling and political maneuvering that has come increasingly to dominate this presidential race, as a result of an absence of substantive divergence between the two candidates on foreign policy.

After all, the facts speak for themselves. Romney’s suggestion that there is a need to “repair relations,” with Israel – likely in reference to Obama’s frosty relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu – adds little to what is already an enduringly enormous commitment to the country and its security. The current administration allocated more than $200 million in 2010 for the Iron Dome defense system – a “game-changer,” in the words of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – and the House of Representatives has passed an authorization bill sanctioning an extra $680 million for 2013. There’s also the $3 billion in aid expected to flow to Israel this year, and an additional $70 million from pre-programmed 2012 funds.

Despite Romney’s openly uncompromising stance on Iran, he has pledged full support for tighter sanctions and diplomatic isolation, like Obama, and both have put militaristic options on the table. National Security Advisory Committee Co-Chair, Michèle Flournoy, has termed it “incredibly robust,” while first pledging to tighten a noose through non-military options aimed at changing Iran’s “calculus.” It was only in early August that the Administration passed a new sanctions bill – following those signed into law last year targeting Iran’s central Romney and Obama’s Foreign Policy: What’s in a Name? bank – adding penalties to those that aid Iran’s petroleum, petrochemical, shipping, insurance and fi nancial sectors, with specific reference to the National Iranian Oil Company. Following criticism of an early withdrawal date, Romney has also now accepted Obama’s 2014 deadline for removing American forces from Afghanistan, a decision confi rmed in early May by NATO. On Syria, the two candidates also ultimately find themselves on the same page, isolating and pressuring the regime while supporting – but not arming – the rebels. Obama in fact allegedly signed an order earlier this year authorizing the CIA and other agencies to support Syrian rebels in toppling Assad, apparently collaborating with a secret command center run by Turkey and its allies. The State Department has also acknowledged setting aside $25 million in in “non-lethal” assistance for the Syrian opposition.

Enter then, the power of rhetoric. Romney’s assertive “I love this country, I love America, I love the friendship we have,” in Israel was a statement on who was the better, more outspoken friend; his “American century,” a sharp juxtaposition to Obama’s “new era of engagement”; his definition of Russia as the US’ “number one geopolitical foe,” a séance for the ghosts of the Cold War, pitting himself and his adversary in a battle of strength on who is more capable of defending America against apparent enemies.

The fact is, this race’s foreign policy debate is not dominated by a defining issue, like Afghanistan or Iraq, allowing tone to take on singular importance. Bruce Jentleson, an analyst with ties to President Obama, told NPR that Romney’s strategy was now to portray himself as “very tough,” and a man who, as he announced before the Veterans of Foreign Wars in late July, should not be the choice of American voters if they didn’t “want America to be the strongest nation on earth.”

The debate has also served as a platform for political maneuvering. In particular, it has served to expand Romney’s voter base and reconcile different political streams: that of his identity as a religious minority with Christian conservatism – whose adherents he desperately requires – and, secondly, that of the neoconservative inheritance of his predecessor with the hunger for moderate realism. Romney’s subsequent defense of his remarks in Israel via an op-ed in the National Review, where he attributed American freedom to being “endowed by our Creator with the freedom to pursue happiness,” seemed aimed at winning the support of the religious right. Israel, too, is identified with a culture premised on individual freedom, while Palestine “deserves” but lacks it, evoking the language of the post-9/11 Bush era. “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today women are free...”

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by Chiara Trincia

(Photo © Reuters)