International relations and the Debate: a Q&A with faculty expert Lori Hartmann-Mahmud
Lori Hartmann-Mahmud is one of several faculty experts who can speak to issues and subjects related to the upcoming Vice Presidential Debate at Centre College on Oct. 11. To see other faculty experts, click here.
Q: How do you anticipate issues like national security will play out in the Debates and in the election?
Lori Hartmann-Mahmud, Frank B. and Virginia B. Hower Associate Professor of International Studies: I think that national security and foreign policy will be downplayed in the debates. A poll taken in September revealed that 50 percent of voters put the economy and jobs at the top of the priority list, while two percent put issues of war and peace [at the top]. This can be explained partially by the fact that Americans tend to be less informed about foreign policy issues than about domestic issues. Still, the attack on our embassy in Benghazi and the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world brought the national security question to the headlines.
The Romney campaign can use this breach of security as an argument for Obama’s weakness on national security. The fact that embassy personnel in Cairo apologized for the video produced in the U.S. that insulted the prophet Muhammed allowed for Romney to capitalize on a previous argument he had made—that Obama was apologizing for U.S. actions in the world, a very weak posturing. In fact, that apology came before the attacks on US embassies—timing is key here. Speeches made by Obama in 2009 have been characterized as an “apology tour” by Romney. This is not totally accurate—he did not apologize, but rather said that the U.S. should not be beyond reproach on economic issues and human rights issues.
Q: What about pressing international topics like Darfur, Guantanamo Bay, Israel-Palestine, etc.?
Hartmann-Mahmud: I think the main topics that will come up will be U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, defense spending, China, Israel and Iran. I don’t think Darfur is on the table at this point. On many of these issues, Obama and Romney are not far apart. For example, on the proposed 2014 withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the only criticism made by Romney has been that he thought Obama should not have revealed the timetable publicly.
In general, Republicans tend to take a tough, nationalistic stance when it comes to foreign policy—traditionally, they are the “hawks”—while Democrats tend to take a more conciliatory, international/multilateral stance on foreign policy—considered “doves.” However, the Obama administration has been anything but dove-like—capturing and killing Osama bin Laden, increasing the number and frequency of drone strikes in the Afghanistan-border areas of Pakistan and not closing Guantanamo Bay detention center as he had promised. Yet Obama did work with our allies in the effort to bring down Gaddafi in Libya—a more multilateral approach. Romney’s speeches have been more aggressive toward China and Iran, for example, but it’s not clear that he could actually act on those positions once he took office.
Both Obama and Romney have said that military strikes against Iran—if they pursue the enrichment of uranium for a nuclear weapon—are on the table, but they probably differ on where that line is drawn, that is, at what point strikes would be advisable. Actually, evidence from the past couple of days indicates that the sanctions might be working as the Iranian currency, the rial, has lost 40 percent of its value in the last week. The problem there is that the crashing economy is very destabilizing, yet the goal of sanctions is to weaken the economy in order to force a change in behavior. On the Palestinian-Israeli peace, Romney has expressed little hope for a settlement. Obama sets his sights on a two-state solution, but he has not expended a lot of political capital in order to push that process forward.
Q: In particular in the VP Debate, pundits from the left have argued that Vice President Biden will be better prepared for questions focused on international relations and policy. What are your thoughts?
Hartmann-Mahmud: I think Joe Biden is better versed in foreign policy issues than Paul Ryan. However, Ryan is a charismatic speaker and a bright energetic political figure. My prediction is that Ryan will stay on message—Obama is soft, too conciliatory, waiting for sanctions to work in Iran, waiting for negotiations to work on China’s currency issue, etc., rather than taking action. He will probably bring up the “apology” issue I mentioned above, and try to paint Romney as tough, nationalistic, no apologies for American power. Biden will try to defend Obama’s record—the mix of tough aggressive action with other more “soft power” approaches.
Q: Do you think a candidate’s international policy stance plays an important role in helping voters make decisions?
Hartmann-Mahmud: If the attack in Benghazi had not happened, I think national security would be very low on the priority list. However, with those attacks and protests, Americans are reminded of our vulnerability and I think that brings the issues to the forefront.