From the start of his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama’s aides have said national security would be the toughest flank for opponents to penetrate.
Instead, the president who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden, persuaded NATO to help bring down Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and ended the Iraq war has been put on the defensive, over the Sept. 11 attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
In tonight’s final presidential debate, devoted to foreign policy, the different paths Obama and Mitt Romney favor will be on trial. The president emphasizes working with allies to put pressure on adversaries; his Republican rival stresses U.S. military might and says he’d be tougher on Russia, China, Iran and terrorists. While many of their core policies are similar, even small contrasts may mean a lot.
The distinctions may be “detail or nuance, but I will tell you as a former practitioner, those actually make a huge deal of difference,” said Eliot Cohen, a Defense Department and State Department adviser under Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush who now advises the Romney campaign.
Romney has no foreign policy experience. His election-year trip overseas was marred by his insult to the U.K. over the Olympics, the suggestion he’d give Israel carte blanche to attack Iran, and remarks that Palestinians saw as insensitive.
Romney has sought to stake out differences on issues from the Middle East to China to Russia, and on Pentagon spending.
Here are some key areas where the candidates will argue their positions during the debate at 9 p.m., Washington time, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida:
The deaths at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya gave Republicans an opening to question whether Obama’s support for Arab Spring rebellions has worked out better for the U.S. or for Islamic radicals; whether the killing of bin Laden has caused the president to become complacent about other Islamist threats, and whether Obama’s promised withdrawal of all U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan will risk it becoming a terrorist haven again.
Polls show Romney has narrowed what had been Obama’s wide lead with voters on foreign policy and terrorism. Obama led Romney 47 percent to 43 percent in an Oct. 4-7 Pew Research Center poll on the question of who would make wiser decisions. That was down from a 53 percent to 38 percent Obama lead in a survey last month by Washington-based Pew.
Romney and his allies have hammered at the Libya question. Even though Obama condemned “acts of terror” the morning after the deadly incident, for nine days the administration characterized the attack as growing out of a protest against an anti-Muslim film made in the U.S.
Romney also has seized on revelations that there were requests for additional security before the attack to the State Department, which is conducting an investigation.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said yesterday that the president must have known of the security risks and didn’t take action. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” he also criticized the Obama administration for failing to attribute the attack to terrorists immediately afterward.
On the same program, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said evidence at the time supported the president’s cautious approach. He cited a Washington Post column indicating the CIA believed the attack may have been in reaction to the anti-Muslim video that sparked demonstrations in several Islamic countries.
Bloomberg News reported last week that evidence matches neither the Obama administration’s initial accounts nor Republican portrayals of the incident. There wasn’t a peaceful demonstration against the film that grew violent, nor an al-Qaeda planned attack. Instead, it was a hastily organized act by local men using weapons widely available in Libya, according to evidence at the scene and U.S. officials who saw the intelligence and asked for anonymity to discuss it.
While Obama has expanded a CIA drone program to target terror suspects in countries including Pakistan and Yemen, the Republicans portray Obama as slow to react to new Islamist threats from Libya, Mali, Somalia and Yemen.
Obama’s record shows he approaches crises case by case: He backed U.S. military intervention to support the popular uprising in Libya yet hasn’t done the same in Syria; he distanced the U.S. from allies in Egypt and Yemen during anti-government protests while standing behind Arab monarchs.
Romney talks about “American exceptionalism” and getting tougher with “enemies.”
“Barack Obama, wartime president though he is, continues to see the world still in nuanced gray -- the color of engagement and diplomacy,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast analyst who served in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Mitt Romney, should he be elected, will start off seeing the world more in black and white -- the color of muscular rhetoric, American exceptionalism and unapologetic nationalism,” said Miller, who’s now at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
One of Romney’s most pointed attacks has been over Iran, charging that the Islamic Republic is closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon than when Obama took office.
Obama has worked with European allies to impose the toughest economic penalties ever on Iran, and Iranian officials have blamed the sanctions for their financial troubles, including the freefall of their currency. Obama has also enlisted Russia and China’s help in pressing Iran to resume nuclear negotiations.
Romney says he agrees that sanctions and negotiations are the preferred path to resolving the dispute. Like Obama, he says he’d use military force rather than allow Iran a nuclear weapon.
The Obama administration denied a report in the New York Times yesterday that Iran has agreed to direct talks with the U.S. on its nuclear program. Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman, who has been helping Romney prepare for his debates, said Sunday the U.S. shouldn’t engage in one-on-one talks with Iran. That would “jettison our allies” who have held a united stance with the U.S., he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Romney has tried to persuade voters that his threat of a preemptive military strike against Iran is more credible than Obama’s. He has accused Obama of throwing “Israel under the bus,” playing off the strained relationship between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pressed for a more aggressive U.S. stance on Iran.
While Obama and Netanyahu have differed over what threshold might trigger such a strike, the U.S.-Israeli alliance remains strong. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in July that no president has done more for Israeli security than Obama.
The U.S. has provided Israel $3 billion in annual military assistance since 2007, and Obama boosted aid by helping Israel finance and develop its “Iron Dome” defense against short-range rockets from the Lebanese Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah. And the U.S. and Israel are holding their largest joint air and missile defense exercise.
On Afghanistan and Syria, it’s difficult to identify concrete policy differences.
Romney said he would end the combat mission and transition to Afghan-led security by the end of 2014, which the president and NATO allies already have pledged to do. At the same time, Romney has criticized Obama for announcing plans to withdraw all combat troops and has said he’d change course if military commanders advised him to.
On Syria, Romney has advocated that the rebels should be better armed, though he hasn’t said the U.S. should do this itself.
The Obama administration, like several NATO partners, is giving non-lethal assistance to the opposition, while coordinating with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been arming the rebels. Both candidates have opposed sending U.S. troops into the conflict.
Romney has pledged to “get tough” on China and declare the nation a currency manipulator on “day one.” During the second debate, on Oct. 16 in Hempstead, New York, he said doing so would allow him as president to impose tariffs if China is taking “unfair advantage of our manufacturers.”
Declaring a country a currency manipulator would set Romney apart from both Obama and President George W. Bush, who resisted pressure from Congress to cite China for keeping its currency weak, thus making U.S. exports more expensive. Critics of Romney’s plan say the act would invite retaliation by China, which held $1.15 trillion in U.S. Treasuries as of August.
Obama has touted tariffs he imposed on Chinese tires. His administration has taken two auto-related complaints to the World Trade Organization. Since 2009, the U.S. and China have had trade disputes over steel, tires, chicken parts, rare earth elements, electronic payments and government support for clean energy technology.
The campaign rhetoric drew a rebuke from China last week. The official Xinhua News Agency said ties could be hurt if the debates turn into a “China-bashing competition.”
“The fierce presidential race seems to have morphed into a contest in which the one who plays tougher on China has better chances to win,” Xinhua said in a commentary.
Romney’s tough words on China have drawn business concern. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the largest business lobbying group, opposes his pledge to designate China a currency manipulator, David Chavern, the chamber’s executive vice president, said last month at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington.
Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, former chairman of American International Group Inc. and a director of the U.S.-China Business Council, said Romney will reverse his position on China if he wins. “I think he will change his mind” if elected, Greenberg, a Romney supporter, said in an Oct. 11 interview.
No. 1 Foe
Romney has singled out Russia as the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the U.S. and ridiculed Obama for what Romney says is a failed effort to “reset” relations. Romney accuses Obama of giving in to Russian pressure to weaken U.S. missile-defense plans in central Europe, and getting nothing in return.
Though Romney devoted fewer than 200 words to foreign policy in his speech at the Republican National Convention, he made a point to say Russian President Vladimir Putin would see “less flexibility and more backbone” from him.
Obama was caught on an open microphone in March telling Russia’s then-President Dmitry Medvedev that Obama would have “more flexibility” to address issues such as missile defense after he’s re-elected, and that Putin, who would be returning to office, needed to give Obama “space.”
The Obama administration credits Russian cooperation in permitting the resupply of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for the more than half a year when Pakistani land routes were closed. Russia has also backed tougher sanctions on Iran.
Romney has said the U.S. military is in danger of becoming a “hollow force” under Obama because of potential cuts of as much as $1 trillion over 10 years, reductions negotiated as part of the bipartisan Budget Control Act last year. He says he would reverse those cuts -- which were approved by lawmakers including his running mate, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan -- and instead increase defense spending until it equals 4 percent of gross domestic product, an increase of about $2 trillion over 10 years.
Obama also opposes the threatened cuts and called upon Congress to pass an alternative. He has opposed Romney’s call for boosting defense spending as unaffordable.
Romney’s overriding critique of Obama has been to attack his worldview, accusing the president of traveling abroad apologizing for America and “snubbing its allies.”
While Obama said in a 2009 speech in France that “there have been times where America has shown arrogance,” he also criticized Europe for “anti-Americanism.”
Supporters of both men say the lens through which they see the world is different.
“President Obama came in believing the way you deal with the world is you reach out to your enemies,” said Romney supporter Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
Romney “believes you start with your friends,” Cohen said.
“Pragmatic versus ideological is how I’d characterize” Obama’s foreign policy worldview compared with Romney’s, said Brian Katulis, a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a policy institute, and an adviser to the Obama campaign.
In a September Pew poll, voters ranked foreign policy behind the economy, health care, education and other issues in their list of priorities.