Foreign policy in the race for the presidency has historically not been center stage, or barely even on stage at all. While the vote is predicted to be focused primarily on jobs and the economy, the 2012 election is concluding with a number of foreign and security issues that will confront the next U.S. president almost immediately after November 6 or on assuming office. Most striking has been the highly contentious attempt by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon capability. This has been a major issue throughout the presidential term of Barack Obama and one that has been the target of Republican criticism, particularly as it impacts U.S. relations with Israel. Complicating the race even further are the reports of an Iranian suggestion to open talks after the election, presumably thus able to know the negotiating partner. This could be an opening or a delay tactic by the Iranians, but it is unclear whether either President Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney would pursue ‘talks’ in any case or on acceptable terms to the Iranians. Even further complicating the race in the last month was the terrorist killing of highly respected U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Libya. This prompted sharp exchanges and finger pointing between the presidential candidates as their polling figures narrowed and the race tightened.
A number of other concerns have also prompted debate over international issues with consequences and challenges for the next president: the difficult Arab Spring government transitions, an intractable Syrian conflict, the threat of proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in a number of regions, the withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, the challenge of forging a relationship with Russia, an emerging policy on China − particularly given the ‘pivot’ outlined earlier in the year − and a military budget to support U.S. global leadership. Other foreign policy issues during the election campaign speeches have more often been part of the economic, budget and deficit, or trade discussion and, in fact, even in the final presidential debate on foreign policy on October 22, the discussion reverted several times to the economy, budget and, above all, to jobs. At one point President Obama transitioned from a discussion of Afghanistan to the need to nation build “here at home.”
Assuming no unexpected crisis (or surprise as in the reported offer for negotiations by Iran), foreign and national security issues will immediately be on the agenda after November 6. The lack of a discussion over the previous year of campaigning – notwithstanding the fall debates – will mean a busy three-month transition for a new president to give close consideration of the issues that could quickly need action. It is interesting to note that when asked in the final debate focused on foreign policy what the greatest future threat to the national security of this country is, Obama replied terrorism and Romney a nuclear Iran. Regardless of who is elected, several foreign policy issues could require attention and initiative that have been delayed during the campaign. One need only think back to the March open mike comment by President Obama to President Medvedev about the need to come back to the ‘sensitive’ U.S.-Russian issue of European missile defense after the election.