By Peter Apps
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As he locks down the Republican nomination for U.S. president, Mitt Romney is framing what looks to be a decidedly hawkish foreign policy.
But should the former Massachusetts governor defeat Democratic President Barack Obama in November, it remains far from clear how he actually would tackle what his own website describes as a "bewildering array of threats and opportunities."
More clear is the strategy that Romney plans to use to try to diminish Obama's record on foreign policy.
Obama, whose own foreign policy inexperience was widely viewed as a weakness four years ago, now generally gets high marks in polls on the topic - particularly since the killing of Osama bin Laden last year.
The president's campaign cites the dismantling of al-Qaeda's leadership and the historic sanctions against Iran as evidence of his effectiveness.
The Romney campaign, however, believes it can paint an alternate picture of Obama as naive, weak and perhaps secretly convinced that the world's most pre-eminent superpower has entered an era of unstoppable and terminal decline.
Beyond his success at devastating al-Qaeda with drone strikes and special forces raids - a trend begun under Republican George W. Bush but accelerated by the current administration - Romney's team argues that Obama's foreign policy achievements are limited.
By being content to "lead from behind" on issues such as the conflict in Libya, they say Obama has sacrificed America's dominant global position. The attempted "reset" of relations with Russia has largely been a failure, they say, while planned military cuts could leave potential adversaries such as China and Iran with too great an ability to challenge Washington.
"Governor Romney believes in American exceptionalism, that we are great not just because of our military and economic power but also because of our values," says Richard Williamson, a leading Republican foreign policy specialist and adviser to the Romney campaign who served in various roles under Ronald Reagan and both Bush administrations.
"The current president does not. ... He believes in engagement - which has often not worked - while the governor believes we should say what we believe and work from a position of strength."
A 'MORE AGGRESSIVE' APPROACH
That's the kind of rhetoric that Obama's team dismisses as largely meaningless.
But in real terms, Williamson said, a Romney presidency would offer a "more aggressive" approach toward China, Russia and the Middle East. Romney says he would swiftly brand Beijing a currency manipulator, refuse to concede to Moscow on nuclear issues and put more emphasis on defending Israel.
On the surface, his statements on the key foreign policy topic of the moment - what action might be needed to stop Iran's nuclear program - remain relatively similar to those of Obama.
Romney says he would ratchet up the financial pressure on Tehran through sanctions, while leaving the option of military action on the table.
The Republican's campaign, however, clearly wants to give the impression that he might prove more willing than Obama to take military action against Iran's nuclear program.
As Obama walks a thin line trying to avoid a military confrontation in the months before the November 6 election while also restraining Israel, the Republican challenger has much more freedom to talk tough.
"I think our biggest single difference is probably over Iran," Williamson said. "Put it this way: If I was the regime in Tehran I'd be much more worried about dealing with a Romney administration than with the current administration."
Obama's campaign rejects that claim. Many of the actions that Romney is demanding - particularly regarding tighter sanctions on Iran - have been put in place by the president, Obama's team said.
Obama's administration says it has succeeded in building an international coalition against Iran that has enacted unusually strict sanctions against that nation's central bank and its oil exports.
Analysts wonder whether Romney - who has moved to the right on issues such as healthcare, abortion and immigration during his run for the Republican nomination - is talking tough on foreign policy merely as a political strategy.
"Romney seems to believe that the way to beat Obama is to paint himself as the tough guy when it comes to national security," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a senior member of the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. "We simply don't know whether he will stick to that."
George W. Bush, after all, pledged a "humble" foreign policy and an end to nation-building before the attacks of September 11, 2001, changed everything.
Even those currently closest to Romney, analysts said, may still be largely in the dark about how Romney would handle foreign policy.
"On economic issues, it is clear that Romney has his vision and everyone else follows. But I don't think that's the case with foreign affairs," says Douglas A. Ollivant, a former National Security Council director for Iraq and now senior national security fellow at the New America Foundation.
"I know some of the people who advise Romney, and right now I don't think even they know," Ollivant said. "They are just all pitching and hoping for a seat at the top table."
PORTRAYING ROMNEY AS 'ALL OVER THE MAP'
Democratic officials believe that Romney's vulnerabilities on foreign policy range from awkward statements that they believe show his naiveté - such as when he said Russia is Washington's "number one geopolitical foe" - to a failure to truly come up with different or coherent policies on Iran or Afghanistan.
"The president's record stands in stark contrast to Mitt Romney, who has been all over the map on the key foreign policy challenges that face our nation," an Obama campaign official said.
Despite his international business background, critics said, Romney's foreign experience is weak, largely limited to fundraising for the Mormon church and working with the International Olympic Committee to salvage the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Even Romney's supporters seem to acknowledge as much.
"You certainly wouldn't get a President Romney doing what Obama did and phoning Vladimir Putin from Air Force One to congratulate him on a stolen election," says Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"But can we say whether (Romney) would be more or less likely to launch the kind of intervention we saw in Libya? I think at the moment we simply do not know."
Romney has hired a list of advisers that reads like a who's who of right-leaning foreign and national security affairs specialists - many of them veterans of George W. Bush's administration.
"On foreign policy ... Romney still has to show us who he really is," says Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. But "he has a reputation for being very analytical and thorough, and that could work for him when it comes to foreign affairs."
Prominent Romney advisers include former CIA Director Michael Hayden and a conservative clique that includes writer Robert Kagan and John Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Williamson said Romney is intent on considering as many views as possible.
"I've had the privilege of working for three presidents, and Romney is the brightest principal I've ever worked for," Williamson said. "He listens well and more importantly, he asks good questions."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Eric Beech)