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Uncertain trumpets

Politics | Global battles loom and debate season presents an opportunity to hear more substance than stump

Issue: "Inside Election 2012," Oct. 20, 2012

It’s no shock that when an opponent and large segments of the electorate want to make a campaign about the economy, an incumbent in a close election would turn the tables. Let’s talk about foreign policy, said President Barack Obama and others from the Democratic National Convention onward. Well, let’s.

Starting with the vice-presidential debates on Oct. 11, the candidates will have opportunities to define their foreign policy credos and credentials, concluding with a final debate between Obama and Mitt Romney on Oct. 22 in Florida that is set to focus exclusively on foreign policy.

Until now the president has run on two overseas events: killing Osama bin Laden and ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those are big, symbolic moments. But most experts conclude that the death of bin Laden has played a smaller role than we’d like in ending jihadi terrorism. And “ending wars” says nothing about whether our nation is more secure as a result. At the same time, Gov. Mitt Romney has done little to differentiate himself on Afghanistan, agreeing with the 2014 withdrawal timetable yet allowing for a shift should “facts on the ground” make it necessary. We know little of how his priorities will shape specific U.S. policy overseas. 

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That begins with protecting America and Americans on foreign soil, and questions linger over the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. Why was so little protection—and no U.S. military detail—on hand in a country that’s been war-torn for 18 months? How did the security detail lose track of Stevens for hours, only to learn what happened to him when Libyans delivered his body to a tarmac for evacuation from Benghazi? Why did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and the president, for that matter) disavow a terrorist plot behind the attack—only to admit three weeks later there may have been one? 

Much has been made of this administration’s failure to stand up to enemies in that region, but what about standing with friends? Starting with Israel, but also with aspiring democratic parties in Egypt, Iraq, and the newly elected government in Libya. When was the last time you heard Obama say under what conditions he can and will work with them? 

From Romney I want to know who are his friends in the Middle East besides Israel and how will he constructively engage them while protecting us. Would he attend the president’s daily intelligence briefing more often than Obama does (only 43 percent of the time, according to a study by the Government Accountability Institute)? Will he continue the Republican retreat over its alleged failure in Iraq, or will he join the Condoleezza Rices and Stephen Hadleys in reasserting a confident approach to U.S. security—as Hadley, the former national security advisor, recently did in proposing “Eight Ways to Deal with Iran”?

Questions abound about U.S. policy toward Iran, but about other volatile areas too. Will the president come clean on the drone wars he is fighting in Pakistan? 

And what about trade with China? On the campaign stump in Ohio both candidates sound like trade protectionists. Yet this is no time for a trade war with China, which won’t bring back Midwest manufacturing jobs. As Condoleezza Rice pointed out in her speech to Republicans in Tampa, China has negotiated 15 free trade agreements in the same period the United States has negotiated three. Can the candidates show they differ on free trade, with a swing state on the line?

And lastly, who will defend the weak? It’s shocking how little is said in either camp about protecting minorities, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. Yet U.S. strength as the world’s superpower works only when it’s tempered by compassion for the least.

Many have said this contest represents perhaps the greatest contrast between presidential candidates in memory, given their backgrounds, policy differences, and view of government. But when it comes to foreign policy and national security, both sides are sounding uncertain trumpets. “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8).


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