October 21, 2012

Upheaval abroad makes foreign policy apt topic for last presidential debate

Listening to the presidential campaigns these past few months, a voter could almost forget the United States is still at war.

That will change on Monday night, when President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney meet in Boca Raton, Fla., to address foreign policy in the campaign’s final debate.

Although the economy at home dominates the campaign, global upheaval during Obama’s time in office will provide ample fodder for this debate, which will be moderated by Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” on CBS.

The past four years included:

• Escalation of the war in Afghanistan.

• The end of the Iraq War.

• A “reset” in relations with Russia and the authoritarian Vladimir Putin’s return to power.

• Middle Eastern uprisings that deposed dictators and empowered theocrats and secular democrats alike.

• More drone and special forces strikes in countries to kill terrorist leaders, including Osama bin Laden and Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical cleric and American citizen.

• The killing of four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador, in Libya.

“Even if you think back to Carter and Reagan, foreign policy wasn’t really the big driver there,” said James Carafano, foreign policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington policy group.

The Iran hostage crisis near the end of Jimmy Carter’s term reinforced the perception of him as a weak leader more than it undermined his foreign policy in voters’ minds, Carafano said.


Most voters probably won’t see the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as an indictment of Obama’s foreign policy, Carafano said. Militants stormed the compound on Sept. 11 and killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others.

Voters might interpret the administration’s shifting explanations of what happened — first, officials said it was an outgrowth of protests over an anti-Islam video, then it was revealed there was no protest, and now Congress is investigating accusations that Washington denied embassy staff’s pleas for more security — as dishonesty on Obama’s part, Carafano said.

Or they might see Romney’s reaction — sending out a news release, while consulate staff were still under attack, that criticized Obama’s foreign policy and accused him of being an apologist — as a “trying to play politics” with national security, Carafano said.


The signature military victory of Obama’s presidency ­— the killing of bin Laden in a Navy SEAL raid of the terrorist’s Pakistan compound — caused many to question why the United States remains at war.

“Without having bin Laden at large and needing to be found, I think the American public has really become tired of the war in Afghanistan,” said Nora Bensahel, deputy director of studies at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based defense policy think tank.

Obama promised to end the war by the end of 2014, but attacks on U.S. troops by Afghan security forces they’re training has sown doubts about whether the United States can leave behind a stable country.

Romney criticized Obama for announcing a withdrawal date, saying it allows the Taliban to wait out the United States, but he said he supports the same withdrawal date.

“There’s absolutely no conversation (about Afghanistan). It’s actually quite dangerous for us as a society,” said Brian Katulis, foreign policy fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress. “I think Romney and his advisers see the polls and see how the public has soured” on the war.


In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney pushed for a more robust U.S. involvement in the aftermath of uprisings that deposed dictators across the Middle East. Yet some in the region say that won’t be effective.

“The Arab Spring is not about America and it is not a function of American foreign policy,” said Asher Susser, director of external affairs at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. “The U.S. effort to create a democratic Iraq through a military operation was not very successful. ... The outcome of the American intervention in Afghanistan will probably not be much more successful, either.”

Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring caused confusion, Susser said. Obama supported the overthrow of some strongmen — including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a former U.S. ally — and provided military aid to Libyan rebels, but he hasn’t pushed for military engagement in Syria’s bloody civil war.

“There is no clear statement coming from the Obama White House on what America stands for,” Susser said.