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It's time US presidential campaigns addressed America's place in the world

Sunday, 14 October 2012 - 4:20pm IST | Place: Washington | Agency: The Sunday Telegraph

While global instability offers an opportunity for Mitt Romney to bash president Obama, what different would a Romney-Ryan administration actually do when it comes to foreign affairs?

It is depressing but true that foreign policy rarely has much impact on American elections. This one indisputable area of a president's responsibility affects millions, if not billions, of people around the world, yet to the 200,000 pivotal swing voters in states like Ohio, Colorado and Florida, it is barely an afterthought.

But the world does not stop for presidential elections and explosive events keep intruding on the campaign - from the embassy assault in Libya to increased "green on blue" attacks in Afghanistan; and from continuing slaughter in Syria to Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon.

All this international instability offers an opportunity for Mitt Romney to bash President Barack Obama as hell-bent on weakening the United States. But what would a Romney-Ryan administration actually do differently when it comes to foreign affairs?

Like Senator Obama four years ago, Governor Romney has little foreign policy experience. At least we knew then that Obama opposed the Iraq war and wanted to ramp up drone strikes against al-Qaeda instead — and now, in regard to killing bin Laden, the phrase "mission accomplished" actually applies.

To date we haven't been told whether Mitt Romney supports the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive unilateral intervention - a sticky subject even for conservatives these days. In 2008, Obama tried to compensate for his lack of foreign policy experience by tapping the Senate foreign relations committee chairman, Hillary Clinton, to be his VP. Romney picked the House budget committee chairman Paul Ryan, a Tea Party policy wonk with no foreign policy expertise.

And so the stage was set for the first and only VP debate. Foreign policy occupied much of the questioning and Ryan had a tough time responding beyond campaign rhetoric. So, while he criticised the Obama administration for not stopping Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, he was unable to say how a Romney-Ryan administration would act differently. Likewise, on Syria, Ryan declined to offer any details about how a new administration would solve the problem, other than to criticise working with the United Nations.

Maybe the most surreal moment was when Ryan asserted that Obama's 2014 Afghanistan withdrawal date was evidence of the administration's failure and American decline, but in the next breath asserted that a Romney-Ryan administration would implement the same deadline.

Biden had his share of awkward moments as well. The ongoing congressional hearings on the embassy attack in Libya have shown an administration caught flat-footed at least. Biden bellowed that our ambassador's killers would be brought to justice, but it has been a month and still the murderers run free.

One of the few concrete action items Mitt Romney has promised in the area of foreign affairs is to increase America's military spending to four per cent of GDP - which would cost more than $2 trillion extra over the next decade. This hugely expensive, arbitrary benchmark gets predictable cheers from the cheap seats.

But doing the maths is important, especially because the Romney campaign's core is a commitment to rein in the intergenerational theft of deficits and debt. This $2 trillion sop to the defence industry would overwhelm every specific cut he has proposed to domestic spending, while also ensuring ballooning deficits into the future.

When asked how this expense added up against the larger goals of deficit reduction, Ryan essentially had no response.

With less than a month to the election, and two presidential debates left, this is the time for citizens to demand specifics, to drag arguments out of narrative abstractions and into the realm of actual governing.

(John Avlon is a senior columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast)

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