There is no other policy arena in which the president of the United States has greater latitude than foreign affairs. With U.S. foreign policy less constrained by Congress and relatively free from the media scrutiny that attends the president’s more domestic endeavors, foreign affairs largely remains the domain of the commander in chief. Indeed, broadcast regularly into living rooms all across the globe, the U.S. president is often the singular face of the United States of America in the world—especially in lands where few Americans tread.
Yet global issues routinely get short thrift in presidential debates, especially in yet another election year characterized by economic malaise and divisive social issues. And with media coverage focused primarily on the performance of the candidates and the debates’ impact on the national horserace, crucial questions about how the United States behaves on the world stage routinely fall between the cracks. This neglect is exacerbated by the fact that, when it comes to foreign policy, there is a tremendous amount of overlap between the major candidates.
In the interest of keeping vital global issues in the discussion, Foreign Policy in Focus reached out to scholars at the Institute for Policy Studies—our institutional home—to sketch out progressive perspectives on the world issues we don’t expect to get fair treatment in the debates. Without an informed citizenry, these crucial topics will always fall by the wayside. So read up, and share widely!
1. Making Global Finance Work
—Sarah Anderson, Director, IPS Global Economy Project
I would love to think that President Obama, in the middle of a debate, will don a green Robin Hood hat and announce his support for a financial transaction tax. Popularly known as a Robin Hood Tax, this is the idea of putting a small, fraction-of-a-percent tax on trades of stock, derivatives, and other financial instruments. There’s been a surge of support for the idea here and around the world as a way to generate massive revenue for domestic and international needs and as a way to curb short-term speculation.
And I can offer at least three reasons why it’s not completely crazy to think Obama might do this. For one thing, White House insiders say Obama was for the taxbefore Larry Summers threw cold water on it. Larry’s long gone from the administration, and his sidekick, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, is on his way out.
Second, in the first debate, Obama’s most popular lines were those blasting Wall Street. And the high flyers of the financial industry would be hardest-hit by this tax, particularly those profiting from high-speed trading strategies that have no social value and make markets less stable. For ordinary investors, the cost would be negligible. And isn’t it already too late for Obama to worry about losing Wall Street campaign donations?
Finally, Obama’s announcement would build on the momentum generated recently when 11 European governments officially committed to implementing such taxes.
But do I really think he’ll do it? Well, when’s the last time an American politician proposed a bold, innovative idea without first focus grouping and trial-ballooning it to death? Even if Obama is a closet Robin Hood, he’s too cautious to gamble on a big idea like this during the high-stakes debate. If he wins a second term, we can keep hoping to see that green hat.
2. Making Peace in the Middle East and Afghanistan
—Phyllis Bennis, Director, IPS New Internationalism Project
One of the only significant policy differences between the candidates, narrow though it may be, is on Iran. Obama sets his “red line”—the point at which the United States would consider taking military action—at preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon, which everyone agrees is very far down the road. But Romney will rely on the Israeli red line, which is at the moment when Israel suspects that Iran has “nuclear capabilities.” Any country with a nuclear power program can produce enriched uranium, and if they have the scientific know-how, then they technically have “nuclear capabilities.”
Either way, it is extremely dangerous to set red lines in diplomacy; it usually means your diplomacy is bound to fail. Especially in an election year, this just ratchets up political pressure. And when a candidate boxes himself in with a red line, he may feel obligated to follow through with that commitment once he is elected to the presidency.
By making the claim that Israel faces an existential threat from Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in drawing attention away from the Palestinian issue. No one in Washington is pressing Israel on the critical questions of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the continuing siege on Gaza, or assassinations of Palestinians. These issues have been taken off the table for more than a year while Israel presents itself as victimized by Iran. So Israel has really gained from this whole debate.
Even though Netanyahu is clearly supporting Romney, most Americans recognize that President Obama has been more supportive of Israel in all the ways that matter—money, diplomatic protection at the UN, and especially the $4.1 billion of our tax money going to Israel this year. So Romney claiming that Obama is “throwing Israel under the bus” just doesn’t fly. But the last thing we will hear is any serious discussion of whether this support actually benefits either the United States or the region.
We are also not going to hear a real debate about Afghanistan; we are not going to hear about the more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan, and we are certainly not going to hear about the thousands of Afghan civilians who have been killed in this war.
What we will hear from Obama is, “I’m winding down,” and he will be sure to bring up killing Osama bin Laden. We know that bin Laden is dead, and we also know the CIA has confirmed that there are no more than 50-100 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan now. So we still have 70,000 U.S. troops, 90,000 U.S.-paid contractors, and 40,000 NATO troops to go after 100 guys? Really? This is a war that a majority of Americans on all sides rightfully agree never should have been waged.
Both parties plan to “wind down” by the end of 2014, which is why there will not be very much debate about it, but there will still be troops, trainers, special forces and bases left after that date. That means a continuation of this horrifying war, an expansion of the drone war in Pakistan, further into Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere. This is what’s looking more and more like a permanent war and both parties support it. That’s why we will not hear about this war as a debate, but as a war that both candidates are proud to be a part of.
You can hear more from Phyllis on these issues from her appearance on the Tavis Smiley show, from which this section was adapted. Special thanks to IPS intern Emily Johanson for transcribing.
3. Accounting for the Drone War
—Peter Certo, Acting Editor, Foreign Policy in Focus
Mitt Romney has made no secret of his intent to restore some of the most notorious relics of the Bush administration’s “war on terror” policies. During his 2008 race, the former Massachusetts governor famously promised to “double Guantanamo,” more recently vowing to resurrect the Bush-era practice of detainee torture—despite a former Bush lawyer’s assessment that such a policy would be “indisputably illegal.”
And yet already the Obama administration has expanded the use of extrajudicial violence beyond even the wildest dreams of the Bush administration. Under Obama’s personal stewardship, the United States has dramatically escalated attacks by unmanned drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and perhaps beyond—even purposefully targeting U.S. citizens who have not been charged with any crime, including most famously the New Mexico-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and, more grimly still, his 16-year-old son in Yemen. Through so-called “signature strikes,” the administration also targets individuals it cannot even identify, cynically classifying all “combat-age males” killed as “militants.”
Despite the administration’s brash insistence that such “precision” strikes have spared civilian casualties, independent reports indicate that hundreds or perhaps even thousands of civilians have been killed. And unlike NATO strikes that go awry in Afghanistan—which are usually accompanied at least by official acknowledgments, statements of regret, and compensation for the families of victims—drone strikes leave families of the bereaved no recourse for justice. A horrifying new report suggests that the program has destroyed the social fabric in northwest Pakistan, with thousands of residents showing stark signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Thus it is no surprise that the drone war has been a boon for terrorist recruiters in both Yemen and Pakistan.
The Obama administration has defended the legality of the program in public and happily claimed political credit for killing alleged members of al-Qaeda. And yet, when challenged in court by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, it suddenly claims that it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the campaign. If Obama wins reelection, the program is certain to continue. If the election falls to Romney—who has endorsed the program and bafflingly suggested that Pakistanis are “comfortable” with it—the former Massachusetts governor will receive a “loaded gun” from his predecessor with which to continue firing away. The two candidates might debate which of them will prosecute the war more vigorously, but don’t expect any follow-up questions from the moderators about its propriety.
4. Scaling Back Military Spending
—Miriam Pemberton, Research Fellow, Foreign Policy in Focus
What will Romney say about the military budget? Since he seems remarkably unconstrained by anything he’s said previously on any issue, it’s almost anybody’s guess.
But here’s what he’s said many times previously: We need to bring our military spending levels up to 4 percent of Gross Domestic Product. Why? Things get very vague at that point. But non-partisan analyses have calculated that if we do that, we’ll add $2 trillion to our deficit over 10 years. Maybe that’s why Romney’s running mate walked this proposal back simply to not cutting defense spending. Really? When the current amount is as much as the next 17 countries spend, put together?
The president will, one hopes, use his frequent talking point that we need to take some of the savings from winding down two wars to do some nation building at home. But both candidates will, if asked, decry the dreaded sequestration—the provision in the debt deal that will begin cutting $1 trillion, half from the military and half from the rest of the annual budget, at the beginning of 2013.
It is true: sequestration is a bad way to run a government, and those cuts, by themselves, would be very bad for our economy.
But here’s the point: since 9/11, our military budget has ballooned out of all proportion to what is needed to keep us safe. Sequestration, combined with the rest of the cuts in the budget deal, would bring the military budget back to where it was in 2006. That is more than enough.
In other words: while sequestration is bad policy, the amount it prescribes for cuts to the military budget is eminently doable with no sacrifice to security. Don’t look for that statement, or anything like it, in the debates.
5. Ending the Drug War
—Sanho Tree, Director, IPS Drug Policy Project
Like so many Romney/Obama foreign policy parallels, it is unlikely the drug war will be debated with any vigor, since Romney's drug policy position—like so many of his foreign policy stances—appears to be "Me too, but I'll be even more belligerent because Obama is a wimp." While Obama's Drug Czar's has made progress promoting domestic treatment issues and adopting some harm reduction principles, the administration has continued to harass medical marijuana providers, which directly contradicts Obama's 2008 campaign pledge that his administration would respect the right of states to determine their own policies. Internationally, however, the Obama administration has failed to shift much of the federal drug war budget, and the drug warriors have continued to do more of the same as if on autopilot.
While neither candidate is willing to deviate much from the standard drug war orthodoxy, Romney actually seems to believe his own prohibitionist rhetoric. As someone who doesn't consume caffeine, much less alcohol, Romney has demonstrated an utter lack of understanding about these substances and shows no connection to those suffering with addiction. Obama, however, is no stranger to marijuana and cocaine. He stated during his previous campaign that his favorite show is The Wire, and his previous career as a community organizer in the south side of Chicago would suggest he has more than a passing familiarity with drug addiction and the failures of drug prohibition. Whatever Obama believes personally, however, it is clear that he has been unwilling to challenge this mother of all third rail issues, lest it detract from his other political priorities.
It seems both candidates' drug policies will promote more of the "rinse, lather, repeat" that has cost the United States more than a trillion dollars since Richard Nixon first declared a "war" on drugs.
6. Keeping Our Planet Habitable
—Daphne Wysham, Co-director, Sustainable Energy and Economy Network (SEEN)
Climate change is inherently a foreign policy issue: Our actions in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. have a direct impact on the stability of the Earth’s atmosphere—which, in turn, has an effect on rainfall patterns, droughts, and crop yields. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, global grain reserves are dangerously low due to severe weather in the United States— with a drought now affecting 80 percent of U.S. cropland—and elsewhere. If grain harvests are low for a second year in a row, it could mean a food crisis for millions and global instability.
On the surface, the Democratic and Republican candidates for president appear to hold different positions on climate change: President Obama insisted that “climate change is not a hoax,” while Republican nominee Mitt Romney has mocked the president’s promises “to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet.” Yet both candidates have made clear—either in coded language or in outright support—that they will allow the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to the United States to proceed with little impediment. NASA’s top climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, has warned that if the Canadian tar sands are fully exploited, “it is ‘game over’ for Earth’s climate.”
Romney’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline is explicit: He has bashed Obama for his delay in approving the Keystone XL pipeline and has claimed that, as president, he would achieve “energy independence for North America” —code for full approval of the tar sands pipeline, among other dirty energy options.
President Obama has delayed a decision on the northern portion of the TransCanada pipeline until after the elections. Meanwhile, he has approved the southern portion of the pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas, despite widespread protests and civil disobedience from activists and landowners on the ground.
Both candidates differ slightly on their postures regarding coal, offshore oil drilling, and hydro-fracturing for natural gas—or “fracking”—with Obama claiming to be more willing to impose environmental oversight on fossil fuel extraction and Romney claiming he will expand access to public lands for oil and gas drilling and push back restrictive regulations. Nevertheless, it is clear that both candidates share more similarities than differences when it comes to a strategy of continued reliance on fossil fuels, the number-one cause of climate change.