Foreign Policy Debate May Help Voters Discern Candidates' Differences
Though the economy has been the priority for voters in this election, the consulate attack in Libya and concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions have renewed some urgency and emphasis on foreign policy in the national dialogue. Jeffrey Brown talks to the Washington Post's David Ignatius and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Trudy Rubin.
GWEN IFILL: And we turn back to tonight's debate.
Jeffrey Brown has more on the subject at hand.
JEFFREY BROWN: With high unemployment and tepid growth, the economy remains issue number one in the presidential race.
But foreign policy is also getting attention lately, driven in large part by the Benghazi attack that killed a U.S. ambassador.
And it's the subject of tonight's debate.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to our national security...
JEFFREY BROWN: The president pointed to his record in last week's face-off.
BARACK OBAMA: I said that we'd go after al-Qaida and bin Laden. We have. I said we'd transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security. That's what I'm doing.
JEFFREY BROWN: But Republican Mitt Romney has accused President Obama of projecting weakness.
MITT ROMNEY (R): It is our responsibility and the responsibility of the president to use America's greatest power to shape history, not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.
JEFFREY BROWN: Iran's nuclear weapons program has been a particular flash point. Over the weekend, The New York Times reported Washington and Tehran had, for the first time, agreed to one-on-one talks following the election. The White House denied there was a deal, but didn't deny it was pursuing bilateral talks.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: Al-Qaida is a shadow of itself.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Sunday, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said it shows the president's policies are working.
RICHARD DURBIN: We have now put enough pressure on Iran with the sanctions regime so they won't develop a nuclear weapon, that they want to sit down and talk.
JEFFREY BROWN: Republicans like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham argues it will take more than talk.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: But the purpose of sanctions is to stop the Iranians from building a nuclear program and enriching Iran. It's been a miserable failure.
There's a pattern here. We talk. They enrich. It needs to stop. We need to have red lines coordinated with Israel and end this before it gets out of hand.
JEFFREY BROWN: On Afghanistan, the two camps agree on removing U.S. combat troops, but the exact timing and the size of the force that will remain in the country are still question marks.
In the meantime, the Benghazi attack continues to generate friction. Just as in last week's debate, what the administration knew and when is sure to be a topic again tonight.
And joining me now to discuss this are two foreign affairs columnists, David Ignatius of The Washington Post and Trudy Rubin of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Trudy, let me start with you.
Are you surprised first that foreign policy seems to be getting more attention now, even before tonight's debate?
TRUDY RUBIN, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Well, I think the Republicans and Mitt Romney have done a good job politically of revving up interest in this Benghazi affair and making it look like some kind of mini-scandal.
Unfortunately, the whole way it has been handled blows it up entirely out of proportion and I do think politicizes it and avoids dealing with what might be real issues underlying Benghazi.
This was a mid-level bureaucratic issue in the State Department, providing embassy security. It's not something that rises to the level of the White House.
And the question of who knew what when is rather weird given that all our personnel were pulled out of Benghazi. And so there was no one to give information on the ground. And it took several days for the intelligence agencies to really figure out the whole picture.
So the focus has been totally distorted, but I think that this is what has gotten foreign policy back into the debate.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, David Ignatius, we know that we are going to hear more about that tonight.
Let me ask you about some of the other issues we're expecting to hear about. Afghanistan -- start with Afghanistan. What do the candidates agree on? What are the questions that are still out there about it?
DAVID IGNATIUS, The Washington Post: Well, on paper, the two candidates' positions on Afghanistan are almost identical. They both talk about U.S. troops being gone from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
President Obama has negotiated an agreement with the Afghanistan government for some continuing American presence. And there will be talk about that. I think that Romney is likely to say that the way the president has raised his policy conveys weakness rather than resolve.
But on the questions you asked at the outset, why is foreign policy back as an issue, this was something a few months ago that Obama thought he had a lock on this issue, and I think that there is overseas, especially in the Middle East, a sense of turmoil, a sense of events being a little bit out of control, the war in Syria that just keeps getting worse, keeps taking more lives.
The events in Benghazi obviously dramatize the degree to which there's instability in the Islamic world, especially in North Africa.
And I think that Romney's argument that American weakness under President Obama, drift, a lack of clear leadership, it has more resonance now just because of what people are seeing on their TV screens.
Their positions on Afghanistan and other issues on paper are not that different. The question is whether Romney will be able to present this image of a more forceful approach and whether Obama can match that.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Trudy Rubin, let me take you to another -- again, to match the views here -- Iran.
A while ago, we heard all about red lines and then this possibility about the possibility of direct negotiations. Now, again, once again, the question is where do you see the views of the two candidates? What is similar? What do we not yet know about?
TRUDY RUBIN: Well, on the Iranian issue, Mitt Romney has said that he believes Iran shouldn't have the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.
Now, how do you define capability?
The Israeli prime minister has said that capability means that you would have enough enriched uranium which wouldn't be bomb-grade, but which you could then enrich to bomb-grade, and you could develop the weapon to carry it. But capability would come before you had developed that weapon, long before.
And so I think the question that should be asked at this debate is, how does Mitt Romney define capability? Prime Minister Netanyahu said that Iran would have that in six months. And is Mitt Romney ready to go to war in six months?
On the president's side, he has said he would prevent Iran from getting a weapon. So I think the question there is, would he know when there was a weapon?
But, in the meantime, the president has managed to put in place very harsh sanctions. And my guess is that Romney would probably back off, but we won't know that until we see if he wins.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask David Ignatius how you see Iran playing into the foreign policy debate and particularly in tonight's debate.
DAVID IGNATIUS: The hot issue tonight is going to be the question of whether, as The New York Times reported over the weekend, the Obama administration is planning to go into negotiations with Iran for a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue after the election.
And what's interesting, I think, is that I would expect President Obama, rather than saying, oh, absolutely not, that story was wrong, will indicate that he's interested in a negotiated solution here, that he has made a commitment to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, meaning he will go to war if necessary. But I don't think the country wants to go to war. And Obama knows that.
So, I guess that he'd say I'm ready for a negotiated solution that will put limits on Iran's program. And he will almost, I would guess, push Romney to see whether he's willing to respond in a similarly forthcoming way. It will be a fascinating moment tonight.
JEFFREY BROWN: To see whether he might accept the notion of negotiation.
DAVID IGNATIUS: Well, I mean, so what about that? Is Romney ready to negotiate?
And I would think that if the public hears that Romney absolutely rejects negotiations and this is a matter for us and Israel and, you know, if it's a very hard-line answer that might actually be a problem for Romney.
JEFFREY BROWN: Trudy Rubin, let me come back to the issue that David Ignatius brought up.
It's the larger question about America's role in the world, which will be on the table tonight, the kind of questions, you know, the idea of American exceptionalism -- what is our strength, what is our weakness, what should we be projecting.
We heard Romney in that clip talking about the -- shaping history, leading from behind, all of that. What do you want to hear on these issues? What's the way to frame them tonight?
TRUDY RUBIN: Well, I think when one is looking at what Romney has said and talking about shaping history, one has to look at a Middle East that basically is no longer simply marching to an American tune.
Romney has portrayed the region in terms of the forces of good against the forces of darkness, specifically Islamists.
But it's much more complex than that. And the question is, can we shape entirely or is there more we can do? Both candidates say they support democracy, but democracy has led to elections in Egypt and Tunisia that produced Islamists.
And I think Romney hasn't squared that circle, if you go for democracy and you get a result that you don't like.
Obama, on the other hand, I think really has to deal with the issue of Syria. I think that one of the great questions about leadership in the Middle East stems from the fact that the Syrian situation is getting worse and worse and drawing in all the countries around it in the region and sparking sectarian tensions throughout the region.
And Obama has basically stood back on that issue, not wanting to arm rebels and not putting enough resources into identifying rebels that we might be able to help and sort of outsourcing.
And Romney also talks about outsourcing, letting other countries give arms to the rebels. That to me is the heart of influence in the region, the Syrian question.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, OK.
And a brief last word from you, David Ignatius, on this big picture.
DAVID IGNATIUS: Yes.
So, I would love to see part of this debate devoted to the question of, what is American leadership in the world today?
Mitt Romney has given a very traditional view, that we are the unique, exceptional power. We're the shining city on a hill.
I think I hear in Obama the idea that American power should be resized to fit a world that's changing. And I will be watching tonight to see whether the president expresses that new, somewhat dangerous idea in a way that speaks to the way the world is changing.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Ignatius, Trudy Rubin, thanks so much.