Presidential debate: 6 foreign policy issues that should make an appearance (VIDEO)



US President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney shake hands following their first debate at the University of Denver in Denver, Colorado, Oct. 3.


Nicholas Kamm

The third and final US presidential debate will cover foreign policy issues, which so far have taken a backseat during the election campaign as candidates focused on domestic policies and the ailing economy.

Of course, specifics can be hard to come by in the political realm of rhetoric and sound bites, and the depth of this last debate remains to be seen.

But time is running out for some critical pre-ballot discussions. Here are six big foreign policy areas GlobalPost hopes get a substantive discussion on Oct. 22, and what the candidates have said about them so far.

1. Middle East

Mitt Romney, during a foreign policy speech last week, said, "When we look at the Middle East today, with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region, and with violent extremists on the march, and with an American ambassador and three others dead likely at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates, it is clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office."

With those words, Romney outlined some of the most pressing foreign policy issues that the next American president will face in the Middle East.

Libya: When the US ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, was killed Sept. 11 in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, the incident immediately became caught in the political crossfire, with Romney issuing a statement that said, "It’s disgraceful that the Obama Administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." That statement came in spite of the fact that the "response" Romney was referencing came directly from the US Embassy in Cairo.

The Obama administration also confused matters on Libya, with top officials, the State Department and intelligence agencies disagreeing on whether the attack on the consulate was a planned terrorist attack, or part of the general unrest that broke out in Benghazi and much of the Middle East in response to an anti-Islam film. On Monday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took responsibility for the attacks, sparking a new round of criticism from Republicans who argued the buck stops with the president.

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Romney will likely seek to portray Obama as weak and apologetic. His running mate, Ryan, said, "We need a strong military. We need a strong national security. If we project weakness, they come. If we are strong, they, our adversaries will not test us and our allies will respect us," while speaking to a crowd on Sept. 15, days after the attack.

Iran and Israel: Israel has been pushing the Obama administration to join Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's call for a "clear red line" on Iran's nuclear program, which would stop Tehran from pursuing the enrichment of uranium.

The Obama administration has refused to issue an ultimatum for military intervention. But while speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Obama said America would "do what we must" to prevent Iran from making a bomb. He said, "America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited."

Romney, speaking to CNN last week, appeared to align himself closely with Israel's position. "My own test is that Iran should not have the capability of producing a nuclear weapon. I think that's the same test that Benjamin Netanyahu would also apply." However, he also said military intervention was a "long way" from being necessary. Media reports have noted that Netanyahu's relations with Romney are significantly warmer than his relations with Obama.

Syria: The Obama administration so far has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrian opposition and pursued diplomatic channels, including economic sanctions on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, to intervene in the bloody civil war in Syria. It has avoided providing weapons to the rebels, amid fears the conflict could spread further in the region.

The administration has warned before that if Assad used chemical weapons on his people, he would be crossing a "red line" that would alter US policy, leading to the US providing arms to the rebels. To date, the Obama administration has provided medical kits, water tanks, and other humanitarian aid to the refugees of the Syrian conflict.

However, in his speech last week, Romney indicated that he would provide the rebels with the heavy weapons needed to counter Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets. "Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran — rather than sitting on the sidelines," said Romney.

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Afghanistan: The troop surge in Afghanistan that Obama ordered in 2009 withdrew quietly last month, after the administration said the beefed-up force had accomplished its goals. Any hope of a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan before the planned withdrawal of American troops by the end of 2014 has grown increasingly distant, and NATO troops have had their morale battered by a rising number of insider attacks.

Romney, who was criticized for not mentioning Afghanistan in his Republican National Convention speech in August, said last week that he would not tie himself to a deadline for troop withdrawal. "The route to more war — and to potential attacks here at home — is a politically timed retreat that abandons the Afghan people to the same extremists who ravaged their country and used it to launch the attacks of 9/11," he said, according to the Guardian.

Iraq: Although his speech last week was short on specifics, Romney seemed to blame the deterioration of security in Iraq on the withdrawal of American troops. Obama responded, while speaking at a rally the following day: "After nine years of war, more than $1 trillion in spending, extraordinary sacrifices by our men and women in uniform and their families, [Romney] said we should still have troops on the ground in Iraq."

2. Counterterrorism

The Obama administration has continued some of the Bush administration's aggressive counterterrorism policies, especially the use of drones, which it expanded well beyond what President George W. Bush used during his term.

Obama has defended the use of drones in the fight against Al Qaeda and its affiliates in remote parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, despite the program being controversial and deeply unpopular internationally. Critics have questioned the legality of the drone program, and countries like Pakistan have protested that the drone strikes are a violation of their sovereignty and claiming innocent lives.

In January, Obama said that "drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties," according to The Wall Street Journal. "This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans.... It is important for everybody to understand that this thing is kept on a very tight leash."

The drones have helped target several key figures in Al Qaeda's hierarchy in the last few years, and a report by the US State Department in July said the terrorist network's decline would be hard to reverse, but warned that its affiliates continue to be a threat.

While not exactly clarifying his own position on drones, Romney did say last week, "Drones and the modern instruments of war are important tools in our fight, but they are no substitute for a national security strategy for the Middle East."

Romney also said, "Al Qaeda remains a strong force, however, in Yemen and Somalia, in Libya and other parts of North Africa, in Iraq and now in Syria." He did not outline in his speech how he would deal with Al Qaeda or its affiliates.

3. China, globalization, and job growth

As a candidate, Romney has used China as "a punching bag," said The New York Times. He has accused the East Asian economic power of subsidizing its exports, holding down the value of its currency artificially and stealing American technology. During the first presidential debate, Romney said one of the elements of his five-point economic plan would be to "crack down on China, if and when they cheat."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization doing exactly that. On Sept. 17, an Obama administration filing alleged that China was illegally subsidizing auto exports and undercutting American suppliers. The administration also persuaded Beijing to let the yuan rise, and filed more trade cases against China than the Bush administration, according to CNN Money.

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Adam Hersh, an economist at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, pointed out that the candidates' policies regarding China could affect America's economic recovery, as China is likely to increase anti-competitive trade practices as its own economy suffers from a slowdown, just as US exports and manufacturing jobs are improving.

4. The euro crisis and the global economy

The euro crisis remains the biggest threat to the global economy, and therefore to the US domestic economy, which is still in tentative stages of recovery. Europe is struggling to control a debt crisis spreading across the region and save the euro currency. Any deepening of the crisis could send America and other countries spiraling into another recession.

However, The Associated Press noted that neither candidate has offered a detailed plan for Europe. Obama has urged Europe to act more decisively, while Romney has used the crisis to warn against spending.

Romney only brought up the euro crisis once in the first presidential debate, to highlight the economic turmoil in Spain. "Spain spends 42 percent of their total economy on government. We're now spending 42 percent of our economy on government. I don't want to go down the path to Spain," he said.

After Obama's lackluster performance during the first debate, Reuters noted that many European leaders were nervous about the American election. "It is no secret that many European countries, whether led by center-left or center-right governments, are more broadly aligned with the Democrats when it comes to social and tax policy, the environment and a range of foreign affairs issues," said Reuters.

5. Russia

Romney, to some political analysts' bemusement, has continued to refer to Russia as an ominous threat on the international stage.

During his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, Obama quipped, "You don't call Russia our No. 1 enemy — not Al Qaeda; Russia — unless you're still stuck in a Cold War mind warp," seeking to portray Romney as out of touch with foreign policy.

Last week, Romney again said, "Putin’s Russia casts a long shadow over young democracies and where our oldest allies have been told we are 'pivoting' away from them."

He added, "I’ll implement effective missile defenses to protect against threats. And on this, there will be no flexibility with Vladimir Putin."

6. Climate change and drug violence

Two issues on which the candidates have largely remained silent during the election campaign are global climate change and the international war on drugs. Obama did mention climate change in his acceptance speech at the DNC, saying, "My plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet — because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke."

Romney, on the other hand, criticized the Obama administration's spending on green energy, saying during his first debate with the president, "You provided $90 billion in breaks to the green energy world."

He went on, "Now, I like green energy as well, but that's about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives.... But don't forget, you put $90 billion, like 50 years' worth of breaks, into — into solar and wind, to Solyndra and Fisker and Tester and Ener1." Romney has focused more on clean coal and energy independence than any debate over climate change.

On the issue of the war on drugs, Romney has remained vague, although he did address drug-related violence during a forum at Univision on Sept. 20. He conceded that the US was partly responsible for drug violence in Mexico, and said that the US should focus on cutting the demand for drugs.

According to ABC News, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy devotes 40 percent of the government's budget to prevention and treatment programs. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also acknowledged in 2009 that US drug consumption fuels the violence in Mexico.

As for legalizing marijuana, as recently as 2007, Romney said it would make it easier for people to get kids hooked on drugs, according to The Atlantic.

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GlobalPost correspondent Jean Mackenzie discusses foreign policy in the context of the election:

Watch Romney's recent foreign policy speech below:

And President Obama's comments that Romney and Ryan are "new" to foreign policy: