Obama vs. Romney: Which One Will Keep Us Safe?
BU experts offer a primer on tonight’s final presidential debate
“It won’t help him win many votes this year, but it should be noted that Barack Obama has been a good foreign policy president.” That valentine actually comes from a conservative.
New York Times columnist David Brooks recently praised the president’s siding (after dawdling) with the Arab Spring democratic uprisings; reassigning American resources to the Pacific to counter China, a nation one veteran diplomat called “our most challenging relationship” over the next 50 years; avoiding premature military force to halt Iran’s nuclear program; and deftly balancing multilateral action (toppling Libya’s dictatorship) with unilateral force (getting Osama bin Laden and gelding al-Qaeda).
Some BU experts call Brooks an easy grader, and at least one conservative agrees and will tell the president so tonight. Mitt Romney and President Obama will face off in their final televised debate, in Boca Raton, Fla., at 9 p.m. The subject will be foreign policy, and after their aggressive tête-à-tête last week, the two won’t want for disagreements on this topic.
Romney criticizes Obama’s frosty relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, and for allegedly apologizing in overseas speeches for America’s global behavior. (Media fact-checkers call that last one baloney, saying Obama merely conceded American mistakes while highlighting our ideals.) And while financial and trade sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear program appear to be biting deeply, Romney still assails Obama for timidity in handling that problem. He also vows, if elected, to sanction China for artificially weakening its currency to make its exports more attractive to buy.
BU Today asked some faculty with foreign policy expertise to grade the candidates and assess their stands. (Not every professor chose to answer all of our questions.) Herewith, a primer.
Andrew Bacevich, international relations and history professor, College of Arts & Sciences: The West Point grad and former Army colonel gives Obama’s foreign policy record a C. “His chief achievement is a negative one: he has avoided a catastrophe. His positive accomplishments are few, although he deserves credit for shutting down the Iraq war,” says Bacevich, whose son, 1st Lieutenant Andrew Bacevich (CGS’01, COM’03) was killed there in 2007. Romney, meanwhile, receives an “Incomplete” for a platform Bacevich says is short on specifics and long on “clichés, such as promising a ‘new American Century.’”
Robert Zelnick, former ABC Pentagon and foreign correspondent and professor of journalism, College of Communication: For Obama, a C+. Despite the president’s seriousness on terrorism, “His traveling apologia reinforces anti-Americanism abroad and attracts converts to hard-line anti-Americanism.” Zelnick awards Romney a “low B,” describing him as a man “searching for new economic opportunities abroad rather than one who is focused on strategic issues, as presidents must do today. Having no coherent mix of policies of his own, he has been content to put forth positions long associated with the Republican Party,” like big defense budgets and “unquestioning” support for Israel.
Charles Dunbar, lecturer in international relations, CAS: A former ambassador to Qatar and Yemen, Dunbar gives Obama a B+ overall, with a B for his handling of the Middle East. He lauds the president’s troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, because “our military presence in the country is becoming a liability for both parties.” He also commends Obama’s role in toppling Libya’s dictatorship—the recent murder of our ambassador there notwithstanding, it “will come to be seen as a success.” He, too, gives Romney an “Incomplete” for having “confined himself to traditional Republican slogans (‘We are tough, the Democrats are not”; “We will increase, not cut, defense spending’).”
Min Ye, assistant professor of international relations, CAS: Obama’s record has not impressed her. He destabilized Asia, she says, by his “strategic pivot” of resources there, which emboldened China’s neighbors in their territorial disputes with the People’s Republic and alarmed the Chinese military and public. Obama broke with precedent by speaking of America’s “core interests” vis-à-vis China, leading the latter to adopt a hard-nosed posture “to bargain with America to trade each other’s core interests.” These failings have aggravated nationalism in Asian countries and weakened stability, fostering in China, especially, a situation of “public nationalism and military hawks gaining strength.” Ye cites what she considers other presidential fumbles, including caving to domestic tire manufactures with a punitive tariff on Chinese tires, at the expense of persuading the Chinese to liberalize their economic policy, and tepid support for Chinese dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, which Ye says “tarnished the U.S. stances on human rights and democracy.”
On the other hand, Romney’s branding China a currency manipulator will invite Chinese antagonism and possibly economic retaliation, Ye says, although she expects the economic fallout to be minimal; both nations have a vested interest in their strong economic ties, and China’s leaders understand that to be president, Romney would need to look tough “to win domestic support, and thus it is less likely for them to overreact.”
William Grimes, chairman and professor of international relations, CAS: The currency-manipulator charge is bogus, he argues: the renminbi was indeed undervalued before beginning its climb seven years ago, and today, “it is not far from where it should be, which in any event cannot be defined with any real rigor.” Matters such as halting Chinese violation of intellectual property rights are priorities, Grimes says, but a charge of messing with currency “locks Gov. Romney into an unnecessary confrontation.” Unlike Ye, he supports Obama’s strategic pivot towards Asia, as “we need to support our allies in the region, and we have enormous interests in peace there as well.” While conceding that the strategy has made Chinese leaders “feel encircled,” we can dampen that anxiety with better communication between the nations’ military leaders and U.S.-Chinese cooperation on other matters.
Neta Crawford, professor of political science, CAS: “Sanctions don’t change minds, as Rep. Paul Ryan suggested in the vice presidential debate,” notes Crawford. Rather, effective sanctions crimp a regime’s ability to act, and Obama’s on Iran are effective, “hurting their economy to the point where the citizens are protesting conditions in Iran, and raising the costs of acquiring a nuclear capability.”
Bacevich: With Obama playing out the diplomacy-cum-sanctions game to stop the Iranians from going nuclear, he agrees that military force is unnecessary. “Containment and deterrence offer a demonstrably effective approach.”
Zelnick: Weighing the daunting obstacles to stopping a nuclearized Iran against the country’s strategic location and threats to destroy Israel, Zelnick says, “this observer comes down on the side of enforcing the threat” to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Dunbar: Another casualty of Obama’s heavy-handedness with Netanyahu was the president’s drive to halt Iran’s nuclear program, which proceeds amid American-Israeli bickering.
Crawford: “The U.S. is not directly threatened by unrest in Syria,” but our professed values “are on the table,” because we’ve abetted thuggish regimes in the past and because “no one likes to see a regime slaughter and intimidate its people.” Voters, should listen tonight to hear if the candidates properly advocate the United States keeping Syria “as isolated as possible.”
Dunbar: Obama “is trying to stay within the bounds of international legality; there will eventually be some sort of international intervention.” That intervention might occur before Romney, should he win, even places his hand on the Bible for his presidential oath.
Bacevich: Despite anti-American riots following the distribution of a crude anti-Muslim video and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian standoff, Bacevich says, the presidential race is irrelevant to this topic. “Arabs are going to decide the future of the Arab world. Regardless of who wins the election, the president of the United States will have a minimal ability to affect the course of events there. The one genuinely honest thing that Romney has said about foreign policy… is that the Arab-Israeli peace process is a fraud.”
Zelnick: A reelected Obama “would be even more inclined to tussle with Israel” and speak conciliatorily to anti-American Arabs who “are not mollified by little men bearing umbrellas, searching for places to make concessions.” The president’s tiff with Netanyahu is “gratuitous and counterproductive. I know Netanyahu personally and understand that he is a tough and dedicated leader who lost a brother to a 1976 terrorist attack.” Still, Romney’s critique of the Obama-Netanyahu antipathy is just “half-right.” Both Israelis and Palestinians need constant, public reminders of the necessity of negotiating their differences, and “Israel in particular must be reminded that the ‘creeping annexation’ of Palestinian land is unacceptable. On the other hand, the Palestinians, particularly Hamas, have violated the commitment…to negotiate their differences and not to embrace violence.”
Dunbar: He’s unhappy with both candidates. Romney’s “very close identification with Netanyahu and denigration of the Palestinians as unwilling to make peace is unfortunate, but understandable in his drive to win the election.” But Obama needlessly alienated Netanyahu by opening his presidency with criticisms of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank “as an opening wedge in his effort to restart the Israel-Palestinian peace process.” This actually set back the peace effort, Dunbar says.
What they’d like to hear the candidates discuss
Crawford: “Global warming is the number-one foreign policy issue that the United States faces over the long run. We had better think about how this intersects with domestic policy issues. Number two is global inequality, which we exacerbated by global warming.”
Tonight’s third—and final—presidential debate will be broadcast from 9 to 10:30 p.m. on all major television networks.
Find more election year analysis and commentary by BU professors in the video series “Campaign 2012.”