The final presidential debate, on foreign policy, is scheduled for Monday, October 22. Moderator Bob Schieffer announced that the topics will be: “America’s Role in the World,” “Our Longest War—Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines—Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism,” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.” Heritage’s foreign policy experts have written a series of tipsheets for prepping on each of these issues. You can watch the live stream of the debate with us on Monday here.
The Issue: “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism”
The Positions: A month after the murder of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, the Obama Administration has offered conflicting explanations of what happened and who is responsible. In the second debate, President Obama dodged the question about who had denied repeated requests to bolster security in Benghazi.
In the vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden flatly denied that additional embassy security had even been requested, despite congressional testimony from Charlene Lamb, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs at the State Department, who acknowledged that she turned down the request. Such attempts by the Obama camp to mislead the public, either deliberately or through incompetence, are likely to be an issue again in the final debate.
Apart from the tragedy in Benghazi, Governor Romney is likely to press President Obama to account for U.S. foreign policy with regard to the broader effects of the “Arab Spring.”
The Reality: When governments across the Middle East and North Africa started to collapse in December 2010, the Administration failed to anticipate the consequences that would soon emerge. As new governments formed, they were either Islamist (Egypt and Tunisia), shams (Yemen), or weak and unable to close the gaping security vacuum (Libya). During the debate, President Obama will be expected to explain how he intends to project U.S. leadership in light of these events and justify his vision for engagement with these governments.
In Syria, President Obama’s strategy for diplomatic engagement with the hostile regime has failed to advance U.S. national interests or help protect the Syrian people. In December 2010, the Obama Administration reversed the Bush Administration’s hard-line policy and did an end run around congressional opposition by dispatching a U.S. ambassador to Damascus during a congressional recess.
Then, as the revolution started to emerge a year later, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called President Bashar al-Assad “a reformer” and appealed for him to lead a transition to democracy—an unrealistic request to cooperate in his own downfall. When Assad balked, the Administration outsourced its Syria policy to the United Nations, where Russia and China easily blocked effective action.
Meanwhile, approximately 30,000 people have been slaughtered in steadily escalating fighting that threatens to spill over Syria’s borders. The Obama Administration has dithered as members of Syria’s armed opposition are now allying themselves with terrorist entities. During the debate, President Obama will need to explain why he waited on the sidelines when Washington should have taken a proactive approach to prevent the crisis from deteriorating.
Perhaps the Administration’s only successes in the fight against terrorism are the killings of Osama bin Laden (by SEAL Team 6) and a number of high-ranking al-Qaeda figures through drone strikes. The elimination of al-Qaeda leaders is helpful to limit the influence of Islamist extremism, but it’s not the solution. Al-Qaeda franchises in North Africa, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq have grown much stronger in recent months and continue to pose significant threats to Americans and our allies. The U.S. counterterrorism strategy should not boil down to a game of whack-a-mole. Terrorists are resourceful, and they adapt to changing circumstances.
But the fumbling response to the Libyan terrorist attack underscores the fact that the Obama Administration remains reluctant to admit that the U.S. is at war with Islamist terrorists. This failure to recognize the nature of the threat cedes the initiative to terrorists and increases the risks to Americans. What is needed is a proactive, long-term, comprehensive counterterrorism strategy.