What to Expect: Presidential Foreign Policy Debate
By Matt Southworth on 10/21/2012 @ 12:30 PM
President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will meet on October 22 for a third and final time to outline their plans for the country. This debate will focus on foreign policy. There are a host of issues on the agenda: the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iran, China, military power versus diplomatic might and so on. But don’t expect hardline distinctions on most of the issues.
President Obama and Governor Romney agree so often on foreign policy questions that they are forced to spar over small details around their positions. They talk about who would be tougher on Iran and China, rather than asking if it is in the best interest of the U.S. to be tough on either. They tussle over semantics related to Libya, rather than asking if the U.S. made the right decision by intervening to eliminate former President Muammar Gaddafi.
Iran is particularly likely to come up in the debate, given this weekend's New York Times story, quickly denied by the White House, that one-on-one talks between the U.S. and Iran might restart after the election. Diplomacy might sound "soft" on a debate stage, but FCNL strongly believes that war is not the answer to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran over its nuclear program--and we hope that the candidates to present a view of how that conflict can be resolved without military attacks.
With this presidential race in a statistical dead heat, both candidates feel pressure to define their differences before Election Day—something that’s proved most challenging on foreign policy. When there is little difference between candidates, candidates will attempt to exacerbate those little differences in order to present the illusion of difference.
To be sure, the policies of President Obama and Governor Romney are not identical. Based on what has been said publicly by the Romney campaign, we could expect a larger military and nuclear arsenal under a Romney presidency. President Obama recently said on The Daily Show that he still wants to close the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba—a vision Governor Romney does not likely share.
Overall, I expect Governor Romney to paint the president as someone who has overseen the decline of our country's strength (maintained through a large military) and power (willingness to use that military without thought of the consequences). President Obama has, by contrast, has and will continue to work to shrink the military while relying on Special Forces operations and drone strikes. Neither candidate’s position in this regard is acceptable to us at FCNL.
President Obama is running on a record; Governor Romney is running on delegitimizing that record. The president will most certainly say he ended the war in Iraq and Osama bin Laden is dead. We shouldn't forget that the U.S. is out of Iraq because the Iraqi government refused to grant immunity to up to 10,000 U.S. troops after 2011, a deal the Obama administration attempted to negotiate. Moreover, the constant reference to the killing of bin Laden is deeply troubling to me. There is no redemption or justice in murder—even the murder of a murderer.
Ultimately, U.S. voters must demand better of the leading political candidates in the country. We need a vision—not one based in two, four or six year increments, but a decades long plan. We need a vision that stretches far beyond U.S. election cycles that details the role of the United States in the world. This vision should stake out how the U.S. would work with other nations to eliminate the sources of structural violence and poverty both in the United States and in the world—rather than its current strategy of raising armies to deal with the violence that rises from this inequity. This plan would choose to divest from weapons of destruction and build instead monuments to peace—schools, hospitals, bridges and roads. Diplomacy would reign supreme and war would be the only option left off the table.
Even in this tough, divisive political climate, these changes would be possible were our elected officials to will it—or, perhaps more poignantly, if voters demanded it. Voters, we are told, pay little attention to foreign policy and expectations are set low. It's important to change this dynamic if we are to obtain a more peaceful world. I don’t expect either presidential candidate to outline this world tonight—but why shouldn’t they?