Presidential Election 2012: Foreign and National Security Issues

Gale Mattox

Senior Fellow; Director, Foreign & Security Policy Program

Dr. Gale A. Mattox is Director of the Foreign & Security Policy Program at AICGS and a Professor in the Political Science Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. She is a former elected department chair and chair of chairs, and was awarded the Distinguished Fulbright-Dow Research Chair at the Roosevelt Center in the Netherlands 2009, Fulbright Scholar for NATO Strategic Studies in Brussels in Summer 2017, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Fellow in 2016-17. Dr. Mattox served on the Policy Planning Staff of the Department of State, was a Council on Foreign Relations Fellow at the State Department Office of Strategic and Theater Nuclear Policy, and an International Affairs Analyst at the Congressional Research Service.

She has been a Bosch Fellow in Germany (also Founding President of the Bosch Alumni Association), NATO Research Fellow, and a Fulbright PhD Scholar. Dr. Mattox has held the offices of President (1996-2003) and Vice President of Women in International Security (WIIS); Adjunct Professor, Center for Peace and Security Studies at Georgetown University; and served as Vice President of the International Studies Association and co-chair of the ISA Women’s Caucus.

She has served on numerous boards, including the Tactical Advisory Council, Center for Naval Analysis, and the George Marshall Center Advisory Board in Germany; the advisory boards of St. Mary’s College Women’s Center, the Forum for Security Studies at the Swedish National Defense University, and WIIS. Dr. Mattox published Coalition Challenges in Afghanistan: The Politics of Alliance with S. Grenier, Enlarging NATO: The National Debates with A. Rachwald, and Evolving European Defense Policies with C. Kelleher. She is the co-editor of Germany in Transition, Germany at the Crossroads, and Germany Through American Eyes, and has published widely in scholarly journals. She holds numerous awards and has appeared on the Lehrer News Hour and other media outlets. She holds a PhD from the University of Virginia.

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.[1] At one point President Obama transitioned from a discussion of Afghanistan to the need to nation build “here at home.”[2]

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.[3]


A major issue in the presidential campaign that drew broad attention from the foreign policy community and the interested public was the way forward in the attempt to halt the Iranian progress in the development of a nuclear capability. The reported suggestion that the U.S. and Iran have agreed to talk about the issue intensified the debate between the two candidates to an even greater degree(although ‘agreement’ on this point has been denied by U.S. officials).  Previously insistent that their program is strictly for civilian use, the Iranian progress on the development of a weapons program has disturbed – to put it mildly − the international community and led to diplomatic pressure and trade sanctions, among other measures. The sanctions appear to be working. In addition, of all the foreign issues in the campaign, Iran may be the one with the greatest potential to force the U.S. to take action following the inauguration. Governor Romney has argued for a more concerted posture with respect to Iran that would also demonstrate our solidarity with Israel. During the run up to the Republican Convention, he visited with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a long-time acquaintance from his Harvard days in the late 1970s. Romney underscored their relationship and his (presumably greater) support for Israel than President Obama, his conviction that tighter sanctions were needed, and his stance that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention. Obama retorted in the October 22 debate that “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked,” adding that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”[4]

In perhaps the most public and pointed foreign policy discussion of the campaign season, the comments of Mr. Netanyahu as he prepared for his annual trip to the opening of the UN General Assembly disparaged the reluctance of the Obama Administration to set a redline for the Iranians beyond which the U.S. or others (read Israel) might be expected to take military/defensive action. Obama’s reaction was swift in refusing to meet with the Israeli Prime Minister (citing a busy schedule), followed by what was said to be an intense hour long phone call between the two leaders. The result was no change in policy, and Obama has to date not set a ‘redline,’ even as Iran has responded in the Straits as the sanctions have tightened.

Now with stepped up military exercises by the U.S. in the region and tightening sanctions impacting the Iranian public, the issue is the most likely of the foreign policy issues to heat up – either figuratively with candidates trading escalating barbs or literally with Israel taking action that pressure the U.S. The debate over ‘setting redlines’ for military action was a step in that direction, complicated by the salience of the issue to an important Jewish constituency in critical states in the U.S. elections. Moreover, the suggestion during the UN speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu that next spring might be a deadline by which Iran should stop its development of a nuclear weapon capability implies that whoever assumes office on January 20 could be immediately confronted with the issue.

To the extent that foreign policy was a topic in the Vice Presidential debate and reflecting the importance of the issue, Republican candidate Paul Ryan pointed to an increasing threat from Iran as the country has moved closer to achieving a nuclear capability over the four years of the Obama presidency, a claim also asserted by Governor Romney during the October 22 presidential debate. If there was not clarity on the precise direction each candidate would take on Iran, Romney was explicit with respect to the Iranian Green Revolution: “For the President to be silent I thought was an enormous mistake. We have to stand for our principles, …strong allies…strong military…stronger economy.”[5]  For both candidates, this issue will certainly be a centerpiece of the next administration.


The most virulent back and forth of the campaign has come over the tragic death of Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi and the fault for the killing of him and three other American officials. Romney’s running mate Ryan charged the “absolute unraveling of the foreign policy by the Obama administration.”[6] This was a reference to the administration trying to deflect this terrorist attack with an assertion that it came as a result of a YouTube video critical of Mohammed and the Muslim faith produced in the U.S. rather than  terrorists act, perhaps even by al-Qaeda. Obama repeatedly decried those charges as personally insulting, pointed to his remarks the day after the attacks, took ultimate presidential responsibility for the killings, and set in place an investigation of the tragedy. He charged Romney with poorly conceived remarks issued too quickly on the incident. Both Republican candidates in the days following the Benghazi attack suggested an intelligence failure, as well as a failure of the Obama Administration to increase security in Libya. The fact that Libya was the one country where the West − through a NATO mission − appeared to have had a real success in removing former leader Muammar Gaddafi has left both U.S. candidates without clear or easy solutions. The finger pointing from both sides on the reaction to the killings demonstrated the difficulty in forging an American policy with respect to the Middle East more generally, and the change in governments there by the oppositions more specifically. This issue will also be on the agenda following the election. That NATO had been thought to have intervened with relatively positive results in Libya is telling for the difficult future direction of U.S. Middle East policy toward the new governments following the Arab Spring. Without a doubt, the most effective way to work with the new governments of the Middle East promises to be one of the major challenges for the successful presidential candidate.

Other Middle East challenges will certainly dog the incoming president, regardless of party, without easy or quick resolution, especially with respect to terrorism. An associated dispute over the nature of the terrorist threat to the United States arose during the late October foreign policy debate. Recognizing the President for “taking out” Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership of al-Qaeda, Romney called for a “comprehensive and robust strategy” to help the world of Islam reject violent extremism that is “certainly not on the run” and pointed to the growth of ‘other jihadist groups’ (i.e. Mali)[7]. The President pointed to U.S. leadership in organizing an international coalition for Libya, ending the war in Iraq, and transitioning out of Afghanistan by 2014, as well as other measures designed to address terrorist threats.

Arab Spring

How to best approach the increasingly turbulent Arab Spring has sparked a debate between the candidates. The YouTube video produced in the U.S. prompted huge anti-U.S. demonstrations and left the U.S. struggling to find the best answer to the unfortunate incident in the midst of the election. While Obama points to his 2008 promise to end the war in Iraq and his success in doing so, Romney has tried to shift gears to underscore what for him are the apparent difficulties of the administration to craft a clear policy with respect to the aftermath of the Arab Spring. In the foreign policy debate Romney pointed to the need for the U.S. to “promote the principles of peace”[8] based on a strong U.S. economy. Despite their attempts, however, both candidates have struggled to offer explicit recommendations on how to handle the rise of Islamic parties. Furthermore, the new governments establishing themselves across the Middle East that are struggling for power and direction, as well as potential additional disruptions elsewhere in the region, may be expected to further complicate the picture. The challenges to the U.S. promise to remain difficult well after the elections, with few easy answers available.


Finally in the Middle East, the Syrian issue clearly poses a difficult challenge to the region − with no clear answers. As long as the Russians continue their support for Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad and his government (including the confirmed provision of arms), and as long as they see no benefit to supporting a halt to the Assad regime’s repressions and massacres of its population, the rest of the world will stand idly by. The presidential debates and campaign stumps have not appeared to provide any answers that would lead to an end to the conflict. So far the violence in Syria has killed 30,000 people, particularly along the border between Syria and Turkey, where 100, 000 refugees have fled and Syria has bombed into neighboring Turkey.

This is yet another issue that could demand immediate attention even as the election draws near. The issue certainly portends a difficult period after the election and into the winter if the international community does not take action. The recent bombings by Syria of NATO ally Turkey could lead to a request for assistance by Turkey, a request that would escalate the conflict and even potentially result in action by its NATO allies. Furthermore, the spillover into Lebanon has raised the stakes and the potential for destabilizing the region more broadly. But despite the casualties and refugees, neither candidate appears ready for boots on the ground.

Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)/proliferation

The challenge of WMD relates directly to the above issue of Iranian proliferation/nonproliferation. Even though it has been a high priority of the president since his 2009 comments in Prague shortly after assuming office, the issue of WMD was not mentioned directly in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention this year. But Obama did point to a number of issues as accomplishments over the past four years – among others the new START and nuclear security summits. Romney has criticized the START treaty and made it clear in primary season speeches, without specifics, that he would not have signed the treaty – a sentiment in the primaries shared by Senator McCain and others. He made these remarks despite the support by leading former officials – including two Republicans[9] − for an eventual world without nuclear weapons (as Obama has remarked, however, unlikely in our ‘lifetime.’) But while that goal may not be expected to be achieved even if Obama retains the presidency, it is likely to continue to form the basis for policy, albeit not the high priority assigned in the first two years or so of the current administration. For a Romney administration, the WMD issues will also have to be managed as North Korea continues to threaten in Asia, India and Pakistan threaten each other, and other states consider the desirability to develop an ever more accessible WMD capability. The direction of the Iranian efforts outlined above will also play a critical role in the way forward for non-proliferation efforts by the international community, and particularly the United States.


Without a doubt, the issue of Afghanistan will pose one of the most difficult challenges to the new president as 2014 nears. There are few imaginable events – although absolutes in politics are never a good idea – that would move President Obama to retract from the current commitment to withdraw combat troops from Afghanistan by 2014; a goal articulated again in his Convention Acceptance Speech. It has not been a major issue in the Republican presidential campaign, except in its absence from the Romney nomination speech in the Tampa convention. But in the vice presidential debate, the timing for withdrawal of forces was one of the few issues addressed on foreign policy, with Democratic vice-presidential candidate Biden unequivocal in his insistence for withdrawal by 2014 and Ryan seemingly flexible depending on the ‘circumstances.’[10] For those with sons/daughters deployed to the region, the issue could be influential, but unlikely to be more widely decisive in the election – even with the continuing attacks on U.S. and allied troops by the Afghans they were training that started only a few months before the election.

But the challenges stemming from Afghanistan will be immense for the next White House occupant. First, in the actual withdrawal and the best route to take in leaving the country for the U.S. and its allies – most critical the availability of Pakistani (and, in their absence which is highly likely, Russian and Central Asian) routes; and, second, in the extent of assistance programs left in the wake of the troop withdrawal. Just a few of the issues involved include: will there be sufficient security for development programs and personnel to operate; will there even be an agreement with the Afghanistan government to allow the continued presence of a security force to enable development workers to work in country after withdrawal; and, finally, will the incoming Afghan regime even agree to further development from outside groups? Furthermore, will a sustainable status of forces agreement, which Romney charged President Obama did not achieve in Iraq, be possible or achievable? In the face of these difficulties and the recent ‘green-on-blue’ killings, will Afghanistan be able to maintain its army and police as the ISAF force departs?

Aside from the problems of the withdrawal of the U.S. and its ISAF allies in Afghanistan, the resulting relationships in the region will remain problematic. The destabilization of Pakistan threatens the peace in the region and the Afghan/Iranian border could pose a threat as well. As both India and Pakistan have nuclear capabilities, the region holds the potential for clashes or worse. While President Obama correctly points to the removal of Osama Bin Laden as a major achievement of his administration, this has not, as he recognizes, removed the terrorist threat to the U.S. or its allies, something Romney has been quick to charge.


During the conventions, both candidates mentioned Russia. However, they expressed perspectives which point to disparate paths depending on the outcome of the elections.  While the need to deal with Russia may narrow the actual day-to-day efforts of the next administration, the candidates’ comments reveal a significant different ‘take’ on the nature of the former Soviet Union and therefore portend differing approaches. Having labeled Russia our number one enemy during the campaign (cited by Obama at his convention), Romney declared Obama “eager to give Russia’s President Putin the flexibility he desires, after the election.” He continued “under my administration, our friends[11] will see more loyalty, and Mr. Putin will see a little less flexibility and more backbone.” [12]  This was underscored in the foreign policy debate by Romney in a reference to Russia as a ‘geopolitical foe,’ with whom he will not wear rose-colored glasses.

President Obama has signaled clear intentions over the past four years to ‘reset’ the U.S. relationship with Russia. The new START treaty was part of this effort. But there is little doubt that the administration has grown more realistic on how far this ‘reset’ can go. Consequently, it has rolled back its expectations, particularly with the Putin/Medvedev ‘switch’ of jobs and the abuse of many fundamental human rights important to democratic states. Although criticizing Romney’s characterization of Russia as the U.S.’ number one geopolitical foe as a throwback to the Cold War era during the convention and last debate, Obama can be expected to continue to reach out to Russia on terms that are more realistic for a country that seems determined to backtrack in important areas of electoral and human rights. This would potentially include follow-on talks to START and other possible initiatives, as well as support for future nuclear summits.  Were Romney to assume the presidency, a cooler approach to Russia would be more likely with less hurry (if at all) to initiate further negotiations building on START.

China and Asia

The shift in attention from Europe began, and was officially articulated in the Strategic Defense Guidelines, at the beginning of 2012 by Obama.[13] However, this reorientation, which goes back to at least George W. Bush’s expansion of U.S. bases in Asia, will continue under either administration. Although China’s September launch of its first aircraft carrier Liaoning was a purchase from the Ukraine and is currently still only a refurbished Russian carrier without any aircraft, a future administration will have to reevaluate U.S. policy with China. There has not been a real presidential debate on security implications of the region and China specifically, but the need for such a debate is clear. China has played a role in the election on the issue of Romney’s blind trust investment in China as well as potentially Obama’s (but on a smaller scale as Obama pointed out in the second debate). Beyond a back and forth in the first presidential debate, Romney was unequivocal in his promise that he would declare China a currency manipulator on the first day of his presidency.

While trade with China has prompted discussion, the candidates have largely side-stepped security issues, even while the Chinese and Japanese have wrangled over the ownership of several small islands. Not only will trade with China continue to be an issue, the heightened tensions over territory claimed by both sides and the growing friction between China and Japan promise to be challenging for the next administration.

In the region, North Korea poses additional challenges on a number of levels – its nuclear capabilities, domestic stability, and as a threat to South Korea and Japan, among others. Addressing the nuclear proliferation posed by a dictatorial North Korean government with demonstrated willingness to threaten the region and its neighbors will continue to be a challenge for the next administration. Without Chinese support – or even with its support – changes to the determined objective of Pyongyang to develop a nuclear capability will continue to be destabilizing and any future talks on the issue most likely frustrating.

Defense Spending

What budget will be needed for defense spending to maintain an adequate and ready force structure to pursue future foreign and security policy while also addressing the need to reduce the U.S. deficit? This issue poses both a domestic and foreign/security policy concern, with both presidential candidates attempting to assure voters that the U.S. will continue to be ‘safe.’ It has even prompted heated debate at points in the campaign and during the debates, with President Obama pointing out the increase in military spending every year he has been in office based on the needs articulated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Not only has spending increased, he asserts, but defense spending is more than the amount the next ten countries spend combined. In response, Governor Romney charged during the Foreign Policy debate that the Navy is smaller than at any other time since 1917[14]. For both candidates, U.S. global responsibilities will continue to need a strong military. The argument is how much. The issue will clearly be front and center for the next administration.

And the impact on Europe?

What, then, has the impact of the U.S. elections on Europe been and what will be the issues for Europe/U.S. relations in the future? The answer is more in the lack of European issues per se as a campaign issue in terms of foreign and security policy and the unspoken lessened attention on Europe. First off, more pressing other issues such as China and the Arab Spring transitions have emerged, and, second, the assurance of Europe as an ally (as voiced by President Obama in the one comment specifically on Europe during the last debate)[15] on many of the issues above account for this. Negotiations with Iran are done in partnership with the Europeans; any approach to Syria to quell the violence will be undertaken in concert with the Europeans; relations with Russia will be most effective when coordinated with Europe, among many other issues of common interest. This summer, Germany and the U.S. coordinated through NGOs for the Syrian opposition groups to meet and work together in ‘the Wilmersdorf Gespräche’ in Berlin in order to craft a draft framework for a Syrian transition. Overall, the next President will have to decide the balance of attention between China and the Pacific vis-à-vis Europe – our longtime alliance in NATO – as well as the Middle East, a region to be in continuing turmoil for the foreseeable future.

Without the forces of the Cold War stationed in Europe and the prospect of the Soviet bear rumbling through the Fulda Gap, the issues plaguing Europe are more likely to be economic and financial ones – issues which will require coordination and collaboration. Both of the candidates can be expected to look increasingly to the Europeans to take on more responsibilities, i.e. to Germany for the lead on the EU fiscal crisis, to NATO in Libyan-like scenarios. An interesting and unexpected event in the midst of the fall campaign has been the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union, awarded for its efforts to pull millions of Europeans out of poverty. The announcement was barely acknowledged by the campaigns.

In sum…

If there is anything that is sure with respect to foreign policy and the administration that assumes office in 2013, it is the unexpected, such as domestic conflicts in Africa, expansion of the piracy threat, a clash over the Arctic resources, or others. The spread of the Syrian contagion to Lebanon and involvement of terrorist Hezbollah or other terrorist groups in the last weeks of the presidential campaign demonstrate the potential for the unexpected even in the remaining weeks before the election. Closer to home, Cuba could experience a change of regime or even civil war were the current government to collapse (and recent lifting of the exit visa could prove more disruptive than it appears at this point). The death of one or both of the Castro brothers would certainly trigger a robust U.S. debate and the need for a presidential decision with substantial ramifications not only for the U.S. but for the region more broadly. While in times of unemployment and economic downturn campaigns tend to turn on domestic issues[16] − and even the debate on foreign and security policy turned a number of  times to the economy − (i.e. jobs, but also small school classes, small businesses, etc.), foreign policy issues have at points become critical to the outcome. And this campaign is not yet over!


[1] Politico, “Transcript: Presidential Debate (text, video),” 22 October 2012

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Nakamura and Debbie Wilgoren, “Caught on open mike, Obama tells Medvedev he needs ‘space’ on missile defense,” Washington Post, 26 March 2012

[4] Politico, “Transcript: Presidential Debate (text, video),” 22 October 2012

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kimberly Dozier, “GOP Pounces After News of CIA Cable on Libya Raid,” Associated Press, 19 October 2012

[7]  Interestingly, on his CNN Sunday show on October 27, 2012, Fareed Zakaria underscored the fact that Europe and Africa received just one mention each (and India none) in the October 23 foreign policy debate while Iran received 47, Israel 39, and China 3 mentions 2. Mali received 3 mentions. Note that France and UK were mentioned separately in a comment on military spending.

[8] Politico, “Transcript: Presidential Debate (text, video),” 22 October 2012

[9] George P. Shultz, William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn,” A World Free of Nuclear Weapons,” Wall Street Journal, 4 January 2007

[10] Politico, “Vice Presidential Debate Questions, Transcript (full text, video),” 11 October, 2012

[11] Among others, a commentary on Obama’s letting down Poland and the shift in the European Missile Defense System to an Aegis-based deployment undertaken by this administration.

[12] Fred Weir, “Romney’s GOP Convention Remarks Rub Russia the Wrong Way,” Christian Science Monitor, 31 August 2012

[13] President Barack Obama, Statement on Defense Strategic Guidance, The Pentagon, Washington, DC, 5 January, 2012

[14] This charge about the number of Navy ships currently in service (285) was later refuted by the fact checkers.

[15]  See footnote 7, there is only one mention of Europe during the foreign policy debate and that was made by Obama with reference to the strength of our European alliance.

[16] See the first two presidential debates that were overwhelmingly domestic: Politico, “Presidential Debate Questions and Transcript (full text, video),” 3 October 2012, “Presidential Debate Questions and Transcript (full text, video),” 16 October, 2012. See also the vice-presidential debate at Politico, “Vice Presidential Debate Questions, Transcript (full text, video),” 11 October, 2012.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.