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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.

Overall grade

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’).”


People's Republic of China Yuan Renminbi currency, United States dollar bill currency

Photo by Jason A. Howie

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.


Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Image courtesy of Flickr contributor marsmet544

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.

Middle East

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President of the United States Barack Obama

President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (meeting here in 2008) are said to have a frosty relationship. Photo courtesy of Obama for America

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.”

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

24 Comments on Obama vs. Romney: Which One Will Keep Us Safe?

  • Joe C. on 10.22.2012 at 7:04 am

    “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.”

    I stopped reading right there. What a load of shit. Obama has been a warmonger and has killed more people, in more places, than George Bush. That’s good foreign policy? That’s immoral and wrong.

    At least some of the BU professors were more intelligent.

    • John on 10.22.2012 at 10:31 am

      Agreed 100%. Obama’s policy regarding drone strikes is alarming.

      • Anonymous on 10.22.2012 at 12:28 pm

        But certainly much less alarming and much more effective than preventive wars and nation-building.

    • MoonBatman on 10.22.2012 at 1:31 pm

      “Obama has been a warmonger and has killed more people, in more places, than George Bush”

      No, stop reading right there. Both untrue. Even though the numbers are imprecise, they are clearly orders of magnitude apart (cf Lancet study on Iraq, the war Obama ended, as pledged).

      Notwithstanding questionable legality of tactics, the entire m.o. of this administration has been the reduction of military AND civilian casualties (Gen. McChrystal could have done even more towards this end in Afghanistan than “surge 2.0” after his replacement. There is a moral case that one civilian casualty in a non-belligerent nation is too many, but the kill ratios are good and have only been getting better). War mongers don’t do this.

      That label in light of Obama’s strong but rational stance toward Iran (which rightly earns rare praise from Prof Bacevich) is ridiculous. Joe C, painting all presidents with the same indiscriminate “war-monger” brush is an abdication of citizen responsibility to engage in thoughtful policy discussion. I thought BU students were more intelligent.

      • Rob on 10.22.2012 at 8:16 pm

        American casualities have increased dramatically under Obamas direction. In Afghanistan, casuality rates are almost quadruple (conservative estimate) what they were under President Bush if you factor in time elapsed.

      • Kyle on 10.23.2012 at 9:39 am

        “MoonBatman” I can guarantee you that Obama’s average civilian casualties in forgeign nations, on a per year average, is above that of the Bush administration. While you decided to do nothing and offer little to this discussion other than dissenting from other people and calling them out for some trivial folly, such as calling one man’s statement that a president is a war-monger (which may be taking things a bit far) is showing you have nothing better to do, and no real ideas, except to criticize other people’s opinions. When you have some real insight to the discussion other than figuring out ways to blurt profanities without getting blocked, then please re-join with some intelligence.

  • Kyle on 10.22.2012 at 7:30 am

    Nice grade from Brooks, but he isn’t a conservative. At best he is a slightly right moderate – at the NY Times…

    And what about the Libya cover up? Give me a break!!

    • MoonBatman on 10.22.2012 at 1:32 pm

      Kyle, read David Kirkpatrick’s reporting from the region. And wake the f*ck up.

  • Avery on 10.22.2012 at 8:33 am

    I’m sorry, how is Iran a threat to us? The U.S. military budget is literally (really–look it up) 100 times Iran’s. Furthermore, they are surrounded by U.S. military bases, and they have never attacked the United States, sabotaged our infrastructure, assassinated our scientists, or installed a puppet government to exploit our resource wealth, all things the U.S. has done to them.

    Here’s a germane quote by Huffington Post commentator Anthony Gregory: “If we are searching for an aggressive nuclear regime, determined to wage war despite standards of constitutional restraint, democratic principles, and international law, we have two possible candidates that fit the bill. Iran is not one of them.”

    • K.O on 10.22.2012 at 4:40 pm

      Nothing from the Huffington Post is ever worth mentioning. That’s similar to taking excerpts from MSNBC or Fox except the Huffington post is a step down from even those two abominations of journalism.

      • Avery on 10.22.2012 at 9:23 pm

        That’s not a response to the issue.

  • Peter on 10.22.2012 at 8:37 am

    Will he keep us safe, like the Ambassador to Libya? Will he apologize to the world for it? Is there a flunking grade less than zero on that? Of course the above commentators may be influenced by their need to keep in line with the Academic left. Look at this safe, but deflection at the end about “Global Warming”. Clueless to the science that has said it stopped sixteen years ago.

    • CN on 10.22.2012 at 10:02 am

      Which scientists and studies say that global warming stopped 16 years ago? Specifics, please.

    • MoonBatman on 10.22.2012 at 1:35 pm

      “Othering” people that disagree with you as mindless creeps gets a flunking grade, even if they’re not your professors. GW ended? Seriously, what the flunk do you know. Hope you’re not taking earth sciences, bra.

      • Rob on 10.22.2012 at 8:54 pm

        All you do is “other” people, what are you complaining about?

    • K.O on 10.22.2012 at 4:47 pm

      I agree that Global warming did not have a place in this particular topic and should not have been mentioned in conjunction. I disagree that global warming has stopped.

  • ar on 10.22.2012 at 10:49 am


  • Craig on 10.22.2012 at 11:59 am

    Good journalists are just that-good journalists. Though celebrity journalism has its place- a fact of life in media and made-for-TV Presidential debates, the fact is, most journalists are not trained as moderators. Celebrity status, even among journalists, does not imply the ability to moderate. It’s not true that ‘anyone’ can moderate. It’s one thing when politicians use anecdotes to describe their good intentions and their humanity toward others, but it’s quite another to break the rules of engagement without effective moderation in a Presidential debate.
    Though it would expose a candidate like Romney, more often than not, the quality of debate suffers and we are left with the media acting as both judge and moderator to evaluate ‘who did better.’ When a candidate is incapable of understanding, or unwilling to follow the rules of debate, he shows not only an upbringing where rules are meant for ‘others,’ but an inability to engage wherein half-truths and lies are exposed for what they are.
    When a candidate breaks the rules and makes up his own sensational accusations and revelations, when he demands an answer to a rhetorical question and seeks not rebuttal, when he/she re-frames the questions, it’s up to the moderator to stop the proceedings and roll back the clock so that the ‘new’ accusations and ‘new rules’ are established.
    Ignoring the questions of the audience and the rules of debate undermine the meaning of debate as they seek to undermine the authenticity of rules of engagement.
    Romney makes his own rules, and breaks those rules he deems not worthy. Whether he is acting of his own accord or not, either scenario is troubling. But by doing so, he seeks to control agenda, control conversation, control ideas, and ultimately control what people can and cannot know. It’s always a dangerous precedent when the voice of’ ‘authority’ can sabotage a debate to capture the hearts and minds-the imaginations of people.
    We can’t control the content of what a candidate ultimately delivers to the media- we can ask them ‘til we’re blue in the face; ‘how will you keep us safe?’ But until we have higher expectations for Presidential debates and a media in which the moderator knows how to moderate, we’re left to judge anecdotes and only half-truths.

    • K.O on 10.22.2012 at 4:52 pm

      You used that enormous paragraph just to insult Romney. I guarantee you are one of the same democrats who applauded Joe Biden’s “spirited” performance. Show some impartiality if you’re going to talk about debate moderation rather than just spitting out your distaste for Romney.

  • Anonymous on 10.22.2012 at 12:35 pm

    I just have to say, Romney is a bit of a mess on foreign policy. The only things we’ve really seen from him were his trips during the Olympics (during which he managed to offend and embarrass just about all of his hosts) and his cheap attempts to politicize tragedy. Obama certainly didn’t have a foreign policy background when he came into office, but he’s turned out to be pretty darn good. Not “Cairo speech” good, but good. And we’re finally moving in the right direction. I’m just concerned that Romney’s foreign policy platform will put us on the wrong side of history.

  • David on 10.22.2012 at 2:35 pm

    Obama fostered the “Arab Spring”. Fail.

  • CG on 10.22.2012 at 9:28 pm

    The primary thing this article has demonstrated is that the “experts” certainly don’t agree with each other and any president will face criticism from both hawks and doves. Romney’s take on foreign policy has been a hawkish attempt to differentiate himself from Obama despite the fact that Obama’s presidency has been a continuity of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s foreign policy strategies, and I think Gates is one of our best civil servants in recent memory.
    Iran: Economic sanctions are the most we can and should do right now, war would only embolden a future nuclear program. Romney’s differences on this are essentially rhetorical.
    Afghanistan: Obama’s policy on this war has not been discussed enough in this article: he has inherited a war and had the courage to go against his party in saying that too quick of a withdrawal would be irresponsible.
    China: Obama has repositioned troops and resources to give our Asian allies more comfort; the extent to which this has been labeled aggressive is overhyped and would probably only be stepped up under Romney.
    Libya: This NATO effort was the best case scenario of support for a bad situation and the results are still developing. An attack on our embassy is horrible but characterizing this as a presidential failure is dishonest, he can’t control every local extremist cell.
    Overall I’m hard pressed to find an aspect of his policy that didn’t make the best of a bad situation.

  • Durden Tyler on 10.23.2012 at 12:44 am

    I think we’ll be safe either way regardless, but we have way more important issues to deal with right now like our economy and the looming energy crisis that will happen in a few years.

    Obviously, there is no reason why anyone with a fucking brain would vote for Romney. I am not saying Obama is perfect, but at least he actually gives a damn about people.

    Not that any of this matters with the Republicans’ “Our #1 goal is to make sure Obama is a one term president agenda.” I mean what kind of bull is that? They completely reject any attempt at recovery that the Democrats throw at them, and made it THEIR #1 GOAL to stop Obama from being re elected.

  • Joe. s on 10.23.2012 at 10:04 am

    Accusing President Obama as a war monger is morally wrong.Would you prefer to be killed by the terrorists or to have them killed before they kill you?
    Its on record that those so far killed declared war against USA and its citizens they invited the fight and he has delivered it at there door steps. All i have to say he has done a wonderfull job, he has applied diplomacy first and offered choices to our adversaries they opted to figth and he has delivered their wish.

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