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October 22, 2012 12:36 PM Why The Foreign Policy Debate Matters

By Erik Voeten

Americans care a lot less about foreign policy than the economy. So will the foreign policy debate matter at all? There are two reasons to believe that it will be just as important as any other debate. The first is that issues play a limited role in voting decisions. Debates have mattered mostly for what they reveal about the candidates’ personal qualities, not their stances on the issues. Perhaps fewer Americans will tune in to the debate because it is about foreign policy. Yet, most analyses suggest that media interpretations matter more than what voters who actually watched the debate concluded.

Second, the candidates will have plenty to say about the economy. Questions about China will generate answers about jobs. Questions about he Middle East will return to energy issues. This is partially opportunistic grandstanding by the candidates but it also reflects a reality that the functioning of the U.S. economy is not just a function of domestic policy. To those who haven’t noticed: the financial crisis is global. It is playing out differently in different countries but it is triggered by causes that cannot be controlled by one country. Energy prices are influenced a little by how much drilling the U.S. does and a lot by political unrest (or stability) in the Middle East.

A slightly different argument is that the debate won’t matter much because Americans are not clearly divided on foreign policy issues along partisan lines (see here and here). This makes issues like Benghazi more appealing for a debate setting than more strategically important foreign policy issues, like the financial crisis. Yet, during the domestic debates both candidates also spent most of their time trying to persuade voters that they (and not the other guy) were on the side of one group (middle class, small business) and trying to squeeze another (those with high incomes). Substitute Israel for the former and China for the latter and you’ll get a pretty good picture of what much of the foreign policy debate will be like.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t some crucial foreign policy issues on the agenda, which is heavily skewed towards the Middle East. The most pressing one is “Red Lines – Israel and Iran.” I have spoken with a fair number of experts from different persuasions over the past year and most of them think there is about a fifty percent chance that the US will go to war in Iran in the next few years, most likely in 2013. Here is why. Many analysts expect Iran to get enough 20% enriched uranium to create a nuclear weapon in 2013. Further enrichment would be necessary for an effective nuclear weapon. Yet, this could be accomplished in a matter of weeks should the ayatollah decide to take the final step towards weaponization.

As Joe Biden pointed out during the VP debate, the Iranians would still be some time away from actually possessing an effective nuclear weapon as they would need to develop a sophisticated delivery mechanism. Yet the options to do something about it change dramatically once Iran has the fissile material. Before then, the U.S. could bomb two installations that would at the very least set the program back some years. After that, the Iranians can hide the fissile material anywhere. Work on weaponization is much harder to detect and would be difficult to disrupt with surgical strikes.  Once the military option becomes less attractive, diplomatic solutions also become less likely. Therefore, the possession of sufficient 20% enriched uranium is for many the “red line.”

My guess is that much of the post-debate analysis will focus on the relative success the candidates have in differentiating their approaches to avoid a war. The Obama strategy greatly values multilateralism. Initially, Obama took a conciliatory approach towards Iran. They used Iran’s refusal to negotiate as a tool to build a multilateral coalition that agreed to tougher sanctions. This approach was not just aimed at getting China and Russia on board but also allies such as the EU, Japan and Korea, which all rely heavily on Iranian oil imports. The bet here is that increased isolation will toughen the sanction experience for Iran and, should a strike be necessary, limit the incentives for Iran to escalate he dispute. If the Iranians are isolated, they may find that blocking the Strait of Hormuz, which would greatly disrupt oil markets, would lead to the rapid destruction of their navy and have little strategic value for them.

Romney and Ryan have criticized the Obama administration for portraying weakness by agreeing to the compromises that were necessary to create the multilateral coalition. These compromises have resulted in vague language that have led the Iranian government (and Israel) to question the credibility of the threat to use force. Instead, the administration should use tougher language and draw clear red lines beyond which the Iranians cannot go. Increasing the credibility of the threat is the only thing that can persuade the Iranians to abandon the program.

This reflects a broader critique from the Romney-Ryan team towards Obama’s foreign policy: that it is too compromising and thereby portrays America as weak. The answer is to more strongly signal American resolve by expressing unwavering support for democratization, Israel, and so on. Critics like Dan Nexon call this the “speak loudly and carry a magic want” strategy.

Much will hinge on Romney’s ability to make this critique persuasively and Obama’s ability to explain why that strategy would be risky and unproductive. For example, Romney will criticize recent reports that the U.S. is working to arrange one-on-one talks with Iran while Obama will argue that the Administration will keep all doors open for a peaceful resolution (which will require Iran to abandon its ambitions without losing too much face) while continuing to squeeze Iran. While the fact-checkers will surely go to town on the Benghazi issue, I suspect that the Iran issue will most stimulate the foreign policy talking heads that help shape media perceptions of the debate.

This suspicion is perhaps partially fueled by hope. There is no more important decision that a President needs to make than the decision to go to war. My sense is that a President Obama and a President Romney would probably make the same choice if Iran were on the verge of possessing a nuclear weapon (this is a prediction, not an endorsement). Yet, there is still time to avoid this. Just how each candidate thinks to accomplish this should feature heavily in pre-election debates.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.