BOSTON — When President Obama and Mitt Romney square off tonight for the final presidential debate, the focus is expected to be foreign policy, and the challenge for voters will be to decipher the real differences between them on specific questions of policy.
It’s been hard to see much difference between the two candidates, for example, on the question of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan. Romney seems to agree with Obama that a rapid drawdown of US and allied troops is wise and necessary. You won’t find a lot of daylight between their positions here.
And Romney doesn’t like to dwell too much on Afghanistan because it opens a window for Obama to trumpet his signature foreign policy success — bringing Osama bin Laden to justice.
￼On the question of Iran, again, there is little difference. Romney tries to sound strident about the need to be tougher on Tehran’s leadership. But when pressed for details, Romney seems to prefer tough economic sanctions, which Obama can confidently say have already been imposed and have begun to show their impact. Romney grows quiet when Obama has asked him to clarify whether he is supporting US involvement in another war in Iran.
On the question of what do with the Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria, again the differences are over fine points of distinction. Both men agree that the US should support the rebels in their effort to topple the brutal regime, which has unleashed an all-out civil war that has killed some 30,000 people to date. Obama seems to favor a more limited involvement by supplying light arms to the rebels. Romney supports a more aggressive policy that would include heavy armaments. And neither one does a very good job explaining what the end game would be or how the US would avoid supporting a group of rebels who may turn out to be jihadists.
It seems the big difference between the two candidates is less about the specific foreign policy issues, and more about the way they choose to frame them. The big, ideological dividing line that voters should be keenly aware of in this debate is how each candidate views America’s role in the world and, more precisely, how that view shapes their strategy in counter-terrorism.
Here, there is a clear choice between these two candidates.
Romney has expressed a longing for America to return to a position of unquestioned military preeminence in the world. He wants to recast America to an age that existed in the aftermath of the Cold War with a clear victory of capitalism and democracy over communism and autocracy. Despite the fact that the military budget has grown nearly 60 percent in the decade since the September 11, 2001 attacks on America, Romney seeks to grow the military even more. It is the one place where he says he will not stop spending.
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Obama embraces the future of a post-9/11 world as one in which the US will want to be stealth, decisive and, if necessary, unilateral in carrying out any operation it deems necessary in the struggle against terrorism. But Obama has also said he will seek to be more multilateral than his Republican predecessor in undertaking any military action that would involve the fate of other countries or that could alter regional stability in a place as volatile as the Middle East.
Obama has a list of cases in point to back up this evolving doctrine. The most dramatic and shining example of his stealth, decisive unilateralism is the focus he brought to the combined efforts of the CIA and the military to hunt down Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan. The more hidden and controversial unilateral policy will be the use of armed drones for what is referred to as President Obama’s ‘kill list’ of enemy targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, increasingly, in other corners of the world. These are often overly secretive strikes and, to most human rights activists, problematic examples of how Obama’s doctrine can go awry.
On the broader questions of what do in Libya, Syria and Iran, President Obama has demonstrated a propensity to multilateralism, to making sure that the US does not find itself once again plunging alone into a long, costly war without clear objectives as it did in Iraq.
It is an age-old axiom of politics to vote what you know.
And through 20 years of reporting on national security, terrorism and the Middle East, I have gotten to know the issues of national security and counter terrorism from the ground. I started covering what became known as Al Qaeda in 1993 in the Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11.
I’ve reported in Syria and Iran and throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. Through all those years in the field, I developed a solid list of sources, some retired and some still active, who I stay in touch with and who form what I would say is a consensus that President Obama’s doctrine is more sophisticated and more in step with the security challenges that America faces in the post-9/11 world.
I think it is safe to say that many of these counter-terrorism sources would lean Republican in their own personal politics, although that is rarely, if ever, part of the conversation.
Throughout the four years of Obama’s presidency, I have spoken with high ranking generals, diplomats, security officials and political attaches in many corners of the world. These conversations were mostly ‘on background,’ a phrase that means they inform your perspective even if they are not to be used in direct quotations. And throughout the years, I have heard a strong approval of Obama’s counter-terrorism strategy and his focus on what matters to these national security experts.
More recently several of these sources have expressed a widespread discomfort with some of the more clumsy approaches of Romney on sensitive national security matters and skepticism over his temperament in dealing with high-stakes counter-terrorism operations. Perhaps the most striking example of Romney’s ability to misstep came in the aftermath of the killing in Libya of four American diplomats, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
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Ambassador R. Nicholas Burns is one of those who I have been fortune to keep a running dialogue with over more than a decade on these issues. Burns, now a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, served as a career diplomat in Democratic and Republican administrations from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush.
He expressed this concern about Romney’s reckless comments on Libya best in a column he recently wrote for The Boston Globe:
President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both made strong and determined statements in response to the attack on our diplomats, focusing on our unequivocal opposition to terrorism and fanaticism in the Middle East. In contrast, GOP candidate Mitt Romney accused the administration of showing sympathy to terrorists and apologizing for their actions. By making these completely inaccurate charges, Romney injected the politics of the presidential race into a complex drama half a world away on a day when all Americans should have been rallying around our government and its diplomats in the Middle East.
Crises often reveal the true nature and also the limitations of our leaders. Romney’s statements, made with incomplete understanding of the facts on the ground, represent the worst of our sound-bite-driven politics. He should have issued a strong statement of support for our diplomats in the fight against terrorism and refrained from commenting on what he could not understand sitting outside the government as our two diplomatic outposts were being attacked. Instead, he made an already bad situation even worse. In fact, his statements were so reckless and irresponsible that it prompts the inevitable question: What kind of commander-in-chief would he be?
As Burns points out and many other solid national security sources consistently confirm, playing politics with matters of global import is uniquely perilous. And perhaps in a way that Mitt Romney, as a former governor and a long time corporate leader and head of Bain Capital, may not realize.
My hope for tonight’s debate is that this issue is aired by the moderator, CBS News’ Bob Schieffer, a seasoned, brilliant broadcast journalist and anchor who I am betting on to pull this off in a spectacular way. But this much-needed dialogue will begin by opening up the deep ideological differences that exist between the two candidates so that voters will have a chance to see just how stark they are.
And then on that first Tuesday in November, it will be up to the voters to decide which candidate will best serve America on the big questions of foreign policy, counter-terrorism and national security.