Five Foreign Policy Flashpoints for Tonight’s Debate
Business + Economy

Five Foreign Policy Flashpoints for Tonight’s Debate

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

In an election year when the economy weighs heaviest on voters’ minds, tonight’s foreign policy debate between President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney will most likely devolve into a symbolic slugfest where the search for sound bites trumps substance.

The die was cast last week when Romney waded waste deep into the muddy circumstances behind the tragic deaths of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. He accused the president of waiting two weeks before his administration acknowledged the deaths were planned acts by terrorists rather than by demonstrators protesting an against a U.S. produced anti-Islamic video. Romney’s “gotcha” moment turned into a major embarrassment after moderator Candy Crowley provided the instant fact-check that the president had said within 24 hours, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” 

Obama used the opening to remind viewers that he has compiled a very strong record on foreign affairs, carrying out virtually every promise made during his 2008 campaign. He ended the war in Iraq; is winding down the war in Afghanistan; and issued the command for the assault that brought Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attack, to justice.

Those achievements have been welcomed by a nation exhausted from more than a decade of war in the Middle East. Though there may have been some erosion in Obama’s support in the weeks leading up to the second debate because of his lackluster first performance, polls have generally given the president high marks on his handling of foreign affairs.

Any challenger inevitably has a tougher time on foreign policy issues and Romney’s hurdles are higher than most. Charges that Obama has engaged in a non-stop “apology tour” since taking office or has lost support among the U.S.’s traditional allies like Israel may generate enthusiasm among the Republican Party’s conservative base, but they have little resonance with middle-of-the-roaders, especially those who consider themselves independent.

A Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey released in early September found Americans are souring on intervention abroad with a majority now saying the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weren’t worth the cost in lives or treasure. Fully 82 percent want the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan either on or before Obama’s 2014 deadline. Meanwhile, 68 percent said defense spending should be cut, which is ten percentage points higher than the last time the group took its poll in 2010.

More significantly for this year’s election, it was younger and independent voters – the very ones whom Romney must convince if he is going to win the White House – who are leading proponents of less active engagement abroad. “This report sheds light on greater similarities than differences between self-identified Republicans and Democrats on many aspects of foreign policy,” noted Marshall Bouton, president of the Council. “Over time, independents have become more inclined than either Republicans or Democrats to limit U.S. engagement in world affairs. Because independents are an increasing share of the electorate, this development in American public opinion warrants attention.”

Romney’s foreign policy talking points on the campaign trail and in his major address at the Virginia Military Institute in late September ignored that sentiment. He wants to sharply increase defense spending; says he will take a tougher stance against Iran and North Korean on nuclear issues; wants a less cautious approach in supporting anti-regime movements in Syria and elsewhere; and wants to crack down on China on trade.

Yet Obama has sounded tough on those issues, too, often to the dismay of his leftwing supporters. Other than the defense spending issue, the difference between the candidates may not be as large as Romney’s rhetoric would suggest.

Here are the five areas most likely to generate heated exchanges during tonight’s debate:

Romney has repeatedly attacked Obama for his handling of Iran’s nuclear weapons program and his failure to support the millions of Iranians who poured into the streets in June 2009 demanding democracy after the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “They demanded freedom from a cruel regime that threatens the world; when they cried out, are you with us or are you with them, the American president was silent,” Romney said at VMI.

Romney has surrounded himself with many of the same neo-conservative foreign policy advisers like former United Nations ambassador John Bolton who engineered the invasion of Iraq. They also include Mojahideen-e Khalq, leader of what Suzanne Maloney, senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, called “a discredited, cult-like exile group that has been reluctantly removed from the U.S. government’s list of foreign terrorist organizations after a well-greased lobbying campaign.”

Both Romney and Obama say they will use force if there is clear-cut movement on Iran’s part to develop nuclear weapons. And both support the ongoing sanctions. Indeed, Obama will probably point to the escalating sanctions as proof his policy is working, since it has knocked the Iranian economy to its knees. It has won the support of not just traditional U.S. allies in Europe but Russia, who also wants to prevent a nuclear Iran on its border.

As for charges that the administration could have done more in 2009 to encourage regime change, “there is simply no evidence that more forceful American advocacy could have tipped the balance,” Maloney wrote on the Brookings Institution website. “The Iranian Green Movement did not falter because of Obama’s actions or lack thereof, but rather because of the divisions within its leadership, the lack of a coherent strategy, and the Iranian regime’s willingness to use force, as well as the Iranian public’s corresponding unwillingness to continue coming to the streets in the face of that force.”

Look for Romney to make similar charges about Obama’s handling of the ongoing civil war in Syria, where dictator Bashar al-Assad’s desperate struggle to hold onto power has resulted in the deaths of 30,000 of his fellow citizens. He’s now bombing his own cities as well as neighboring Turkey. “The president has failed to lead,” Romney said earlier this month.

Yet when pressed by reporters, Romney has offered no plan that goes much beyond what the president has done. He would not impose a no-fly zone around cities like Aleppo; he would not ship in heavy weapons; and he would not lead a coalition to organize the opposition, which is as fractured and fratricidal as Libya.

The president is clearly open to criticism for relying on former UN chief Kofi Annan to broker a peace and then pursuing back channel efforts to get Russian president Vladimir Putin to stop sending heavy weapons to the Assad regime. Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, points to one reason for why those efforts failed: Russia’s long-standing military ties to Syria, which provides significant arms sales revenue.

Also, pushing Putin hard on Syria could backfire, Serwer noted. “Russian has been collaborative on Iran because they don’t want to see them get nukes,” he said. “If we push them on Assad, we could lose them on Iran and that’s a bad trade-off.” An Obama supporter, Serwer says “when you’re the challenger, you don’t have to worry about the linkages between issues.”

Look for both sides to sound tough on China in their efforts to win support among blue-collar voters in the Midwest and other manufacturing regions of the country. Romney, attacked by the president’s campaign for moving jobs to China while at Bain Capital, made getting tough on China the centerpiece of his East Asian foreign policy. Besides promising to brand them a currency manipulator “on day one,” he would beef up the U.S. naval presence in the Far East, where China and Japan have been locked in a symbolic dispute over unpopulated islands.

Obama can easily respond to those charges. China’s currency has been appreciating gradually because of steady jawboning by Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and during his term in office he has backed a number of trade complaints against Chinese manufacturers for dumping goods in the U.S. market. He has also sought to flatter the region by saying U.S. foreign policy will soon “pivot” toward Asia, without articulating what exactly that means.

“It’s been a politically motivated effort by both sides to bash China even though we have a huge amount of information that currency imbalances are not causing the problems in our trade relationships with China,” said Derek Scissors, a senior analyst with the Heritage Foundation. “The real problems are Chinese barriers to our goods and theft of intellectual property.”
Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as President Clinton’s top China advisor, notes “there is a long tradition of the challenger saying the incumbent is too soft on China. Then he tries a few things, sees they don’t work, and then adopts his predecessor’s policies.”

His fear is that inexperienced governments in Washington and Beijing could lead to an escalating trade war that benefits neither country. With Xi Jinping about to take over the presidency from Hu Jintao, the new leader needs to show his toughness abroad to win support for a pressing domestic agenda, which includes cracking down on corruption and reducing the huge wealth disparities in China. “If Romney comes in as the new sheriff in town and Xi doesn’t punch back hard, he loses his leverage in China,” Lieberthal said.

This is probably the biggest difference between the two candidates. Romney wants to increase spending on the military by 8 percent, which would lift it to 4 percent of gross domestic product by the end of this decade. The president has called for modest reductions in the rate of increase of military spending, which would stabilize military spending at about 3.5 percent of GDP.

“If you think our future national security problems are going to be military ones, then you would support Romney,” said Serwer of Johns Hopkins’ SAIS. “But that’s not the view of most foreign policy analysts.” A former diplomat with 21 years in the foreign service, he worries that overemphasis on military spending will subtract from exerting American “soft power” abroad.

The budget proposed by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan would slash non-military spending on foreign aid, embassies and consulates, and other programs by 25 percent. That could undermine Romney’s proposal to shift more aid to economic development and public-private partnerships. “Romney says he wants to build up the conditions for private-sector initiatives, but there won’t be any money to do it,” Serwer said.

Ironically, both candidates’ inability to articulate how they will reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit has foreign policy implications, especially for Romney who is proposing a major military build-up without raising taxes. “Asians want us to have a robust presence in the region,” Lieberthal said. “But they want us to do more on the diplomatic and economic side, not the military side. The fear is that we won’t be able to do that because of our fiscal situation.”

Romney hasn’t said much about Russia since he was widely criticized for branding the country America’s number one geopolitical foe. Still, he calls Obama’s “reset” policy an abject failure.

Look for Romney to call for extending the missile defense system in Eastern Europe and scrapping the new strategic arms limitation treaty, which is up for Senate ratification. While not quite calling for a new Cold War, he clearly sees Russia as more threat than ally.

Obama has most Europeans on his side, who recognize that Russia has been as helpful in Iran and Afghanistan as it has been uncooperative in Syria. Even Poland has been working on repairing relations with its eastern neighbor. “Initial concerns in Poland and the Czech Republic about the Obama administration’s commitment to their security have been largely addressed, after the U.S. placed fighter jets in Central Europe and started holding regular military exercises there,” wrote  Clara M. O’Donnell, a non-resident fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe.

Serwer of Johns Hopkins offers another reason for keeping good relations with Russia over the next 24 months as the U.S. proceeds with its troop drawdown in Afghanistan. “They maintain our northern distribution network in Afghanistan,” he noted. “We’d really feel the loss of Russian support if we didn’t have this other route when Pakistan closes the border, as they do from time to time.”