Biden, Ryan go toe-to-toe on foreign policy in debate (ANALYSIS)

As the dust begins to settle after Thursday's spirited vice presidential debate, GlobalPost takes a deeper look at the foreign policy issues brought up during the heated exchange between Vice President Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

Prior to the debate, we shared six foreign policy issues that we hoped would come up. Some, like the topics in the Middle East, dominated the discussion, while others, like climate change and the war on drugs, didn't even warrant a mention.

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Moderator Martha Raddatz started off with a question on Libya, asking Biden whether the attack the administration now admits was planned was the result of a "massive intelligence failure."

Biden answered the question in a roundabout way, saying, "One, we will find and bring to justice the men who did this. And secondly, we will get to the bottom of it, and whatever — wherever the facts lead us, wherever they lead us, we will make clear to the American public, because whatever mistakes were made will not be made again."

Ryan, for his part, pointed out the confusion surrounding the attack, saying, "It took the president two weeks to acknowledge that this was a terrorist attack," to which Biden countered that the Obama administration was reacting to facts as they were unveiled by intelligence agencies.

Ryan began to say, "It projects weakness. And when we look weak, our adversaries are much more willing to test us. They're more brazen in their attacks, and our allies are less willing to..." and Biden, in one of the most memorable moments of the debate, said, "With all due respect, that's a bunch of malarkey."

Biden also insisted, "We weren't told they wanted more security [in Benghazi]," when he was pressed by Raddatz about why there wasn't additional security in Benghazi.

The vice president has since been criticized for that remark. Mitt Romney, speaking at a rally in Richmond, Va. on Friday, said, "The vice president directly contradicted the sworn testimony of State Department officials." He added, "He's doubling down on denial," according to NBC News.

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Deputy National Security Advisor for Communications Ben Rhodes spoke to Foreign Policy magazine on Friday, clarifying that Biden was speaking for himself and President Barack Obama, who were unaware that US officials in Libya had asked the State Department for more security before the US consulate attack which claimed the lives of four Americans, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens.

Rhodes pointed out that the State Department officials who testified before House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's panel never said their requests were made to the president.

Iran and Israel

The debate veered toward Iran's nuclear program, with Raddatz asking Biden and Ryan how effective a military strike would be.

Ryan said, "When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough fissile material — nuclear material to make one bomb. Now they have enough for five. They're racing toward a nuclear weapon."

However, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency's latest report, Iran has diverted much of its enriched uranium towards scientific research, to manufacture fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran, where isotopes can be manufactured for cancer treatment, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Haaretz reported that defense sources in Israel said they had additional information confirming the IAEA's conclusions, justifying a delay in Israel's timetable for military intervention, in spite of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's speech at the United Nations General Assembly last month.

Biden pressed Ryan on what additional steps a Romney administration would take to prevent Iran from advancing its nuclear agenda. "Well, you're talking about doing more ... what are you, you're going to go to war?"

Ryan responded, "We want to prevent war."

Biden accused Ryan of "bluster" and "loose talk" and said the sanctions placed on Iran could not have gone through without the international support of China and Russia.

Biden also said, "War should always be the absolute last resort. That's why these crippling sanctions, which Bibi Netanyahu says we should continue, which — if I'm not mistaken — Governor Romney says ... we should continue. I may be mistaken. He changes his mind so often, I could be wrong."

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Romney's position, as of Wednesday, was, "Let's also recognize that we have a long way to go [in Iran] before military action may be necessary," according to Agence France Presse. He said, "Hopefully, through extremely tight sanctions, as well as diplomatic action, we can prevent Iran from taking a course which would lead to them crossing that line."


On Syria, Biden and Ryan didn't actually differ much in their stances, though pushed back against the other's statements. Both professed that America should not intervene militarily or put troops on the ground in Syria, where more than an estimated 30,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country.

Ryan agreed with the Obama administration that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his people would be a "red line" for intervention. What would he do differently? He said a Romney administration wouldn't be "outsourcing" foreign policy to the United Nations or giving Russian President Vladimir Putin veto power over international efforts.

Biden pushed back against Ryan's assertion that the US could be doing more, saying, "Are they proposing putting American troops on the ground? Putting American aircraft in the airspace? Is that what they're proposing? If they do, they should speak up and say so, but that's not what they're saying."

Biden said America was working with the Turks, Saudis and Jordanians to identify segments of the Syrian opposition who deserved help and could form a legitimate government after Assad's ouster. He added that the Obama administration has been working with allies in the Middle East and NATO to send humanitarian aid and training to segments of the Syrian opposition.

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Romney, in a speech on foreign policy Monday, had gone further, saying he would arm the Syrian rebels. "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," he said, according to the Guardian.


On Afghanistan, as on Syria, Ryan did not offer a drastically different policy from the Obama administration. While saying that he agreed with the 2014 transition, Ryan added, "We don't want to lose the gains we've gotten. We want to make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaeda a safe haven."

Biden shot back with, "We've decimated Al Qaeda central. We have eliminated Osama bin Laden. That was our purpose."

Ryan again said that a 2014 departure would have to depend on an assessment of the situation in 2013, saying, "We don't want to broadcast to our enemies 'put a date on your calendar, wait us out, and then come back.'"

Biden replied, "Forty-nine of our allies said 'out in 2014.' It's the responsibility of the Afghans." He added that it was time for the Afghans to "step up."

Ryan appeared to be taking pains to flex his foreign policy muscles, dropping the names of specific ethnic groups and regions while talking about American troops being pulled out too early during the fighting season in Afghanistan. But Biden, an old hand at foreign policy who has visited Afghanistan far more, said, "No one got pulled out that didn't get filled in by trained Afghan personnel."

Publicly, the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff did support the Obama administration's timetable for surge troop withdrawals. However, according to the Los Angeles Times, Gen. David Petraeus, who was in command of Afghanistan until last year, told lawmakers he was in favor of keeping the 30,000 surge troops, who were withdrawn last month, until the end of this year.

Al Qaeda and Iraq did not come up substantially as topics, though both received glancing mentions from Ryan and Biden. Both candidates brought up Russia and China with contrasting undertones. While Biden said the Obama administration was able to work with Russia and China on diplomatic issues such as sanctions against Iran, Ryan brought up Russia as a roadblock to action in Syria and China as an economic threat.

The euro crisis did not get a mention in the debate, and neither did topics such as the use of drones, global climate change or the global war on drugs. We hope they'll come up in one of the remaining two presidential debates, set for Oct. 16 and Oct. 22.

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