Presidential debate on foreign policy: 6 follow-up questions that should have been asked

October 23, 2012

Last night’s final presidential debate on foreign policy between President Obama and Mitt Romney showed a Republican candidate that was virtually identical to the president on foreign policy and national security. Would better follow-up questions have distinguished the two more?


Here are six follow-up questions policy experts say should have been asked on key issues:

1) On democratization and support of authoritarian governments

Obama: One thing I think Americans should be proud of, when Tunisians began to protest, this nation — me, my administration — stood with them earlier than just about any country. In Egypt we stood on the side of democracy. In Libya we stood on the side of the people. And as a consequence, there’s no doubt that attitudes about Americans have changed. But there are always going to be elements in these countries that potentially threaten the United States. And we want to shrink those groups and those networks and we can do that.

Thanassis Cambanis, The Century Foundation: But Mr. President, you sent an envoy to try to broker an agreement that would have kept Mubarak in office until the end of his term. Only when the Egyptian military stepped away from Mubarak did the U.S. publicly call for him to leave office. Would you have done anything differently? How would you handle popular revolts against other dictators who suppress free speech and endorse torture, but are currently U.S. allies, like the monarchies in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan?

2) Ending Iran’s nuclear program and supporting democratic change

Obama: There — there are people in Iran who have the same aspirations as people all around the world for a better life. And we hope that their leadership takes the right decision, but the deal we’ll accept is they end their nuclear program. It’s very straightforward. And I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking. You know, there have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that — that would make a difference.

Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: President Obama said that Iran must “end” its nuclear program. What does that mean exactly? Ending its nuclear weapons ambitions or ceasing uranium enrichment? Governor Romney criticized President Obama for neglecting to support Iran’s opposition green movement in the summer of 2009. What would he have done, specifically, to support democratic change in Iran?

3) Russia as geopolitical foe and Obama’s flexibility comment

Romney: Excuse me. It’s a geopolitical foe, and I said in the same — in the same paragraph I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin. And I’m certainly not going to say to him, I’ll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election, he’ll get more backbone. Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed I believe that there should be a status of forces agreement.

Mike Gonzalez, Heritage Foundation: Mr. President, what exactly did you mean when you told the then-Russian President Medvedev to relay to the then-PM Putin that you would have more flexibility after the election? Did you mean that once you no longer faced the American voter you may be willing to give Moscow more of what it wanted?

4) Convincing the Muslim world to reject extremism

Romney: The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the — the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these — these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world. And how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the — the world reject these — these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we — we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.

Jacob Stokes, Center for a New American Security: Gov. Romney, you say we need more economic development, rule of law and civil society programs in order to steer the Middle East in the right direction. But those programs are funded by the international affairs budget, which your running mate suggested slashing dramatically in his budget. So would you spend more money on the State Department and USAID or not? If you would spend more money, where else in the budget would you cut?

5) U.S.- China cooperation

Romney: Let’s talk about China. China has an interest that’s very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don’t want war. They don’t want to see protectionism. They don’t want to see the world break out into — into various forms of chaos, because they have to — they have to manufacture goods and put people to work and they have about 20,000 — 20 million, rather, people coming out of the farms every year coming into the cities, needing jobs. So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open. And so we can be a partner with China. We don’t have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form. We can work with them, we can collaborate with them, if they’re willing to be responsible.

Nina Hachigian, Center for American Progress: Mr. Romney, you often talk about the importance of working with our allies in Asia. The president has deepened engagement with them in so many ways. What, specifically, would you do differently to “collaborate” with them? 

6) The Israeli-Palestinian conflict as counter-radicalization strategy

Romney: We’re also going to have to have a farm more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism. We haven’t done that yet. We talk a lot about these things, but you look at the — the record, you look at the record. You look at the record of the last four years and say is Iran closer to a bomb? Yes. Is the Middle East in tumult? Yes. Is — is al-Qaida on the run, on its heels? No. Is — are Israel and the Palestinians closer to reaching a peace agreement?

Dalia Dassa Kaye, RAND: General Petraeus once argued that the festering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians fosters anger toward the United States and ultimately puts Americans deployed in the region in harm’s way. Do you think that solving this conflict should be a priority, and can it help counter extremism from the broader region?

What follow-up questions would you have asked?

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Allen McDuffee | October 23, 2012