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Presidential contenders avoiding nation’s foreign-policy challenges

Precious few foreign-policy notes have been heard in the cacophony of the current presidential campaign, but among them were some surprising comments about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve done our bit and now we need to bring the troops home, several Republican candidates have said in effect.

This line is certainly understandable, given our severe economic problems here at home, but it is nonetheless startling to hear it from the party of John McCain, the party that believes it has a lock on national security matters.

The call to end our military involvement in Southwest Asia is hardly a unanimous refrain. There are still voices demanding that we stay until we win — however winning is defined in this case — and that we need to let the generals decide when we can leave.  

An underappreciated facet of the “supercommittee” set up to tackle our budget deficits is the role it could play in our debate about national security. If the committee does not reach agreement by Thanksgiving, we’ll go to Plan B, which requires equal cuts across the board — including to the defense budget.

Defense hawks mounting fierce campaign
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and defense hawks in Congress and elsewhere in the military industrial complex are already mounting a fierce campaign arguing that the sky will fall if this happens. Conservative resistance to substantial cuts for the Pentagon is one of the few reasons to hope that committee members might agree on a compromise that would balance domestic spending cuts and entitlement reform with increased revenue.

The committee will get little help from the presidential candidates, who have all taken the anti-tax pledge and maintain despite ample evidence to the contrary that lowering taxes and reducing government regulations will fix all that ails us.  

The candidates also all agree that we’re an exceptional country, that we should never apologize, and that by being tougher than President Barack Obama they will restore America’s leadership position. Such rhetoric plays well at home but does not impress leaders abroad, who note that it was Obama, not the previous Republican president, who got Osama Bin Laden and many other key al-Qaida leaders. Obama also achieved a favorable result in Libya and without a massive commitment of American blood and treasure, in sharp contrast with Iraq.

Conservatives are right in believing people around the world still look to America for leadership, but it’s not our tub thumping, “we’re-gonna-win, we’re-No. 1” bombast they’re seeking. They want to see an America that actually gets things done, that puts its economy back on track, solves some of its persistent problems and works with others to bring progress elsewhere in the world.

We frustrate such hopes when, for example, our politicians try to outdo each other in pledging unquestioning support for Israeli policies that have brought neither peace nor security to Israel or its neighbors. Our commitment to Israel’s security and independence is unshakable, but American strategy for helping achieve those goals must be decided in Washington, not Tel Aviv. Knee-jerk support for whatever Israel wants helps no one, that country least of all.

What if allies are wrong?
You won’t hear the presidential candidates talk about the need to stand up to even our best friends when they’re wrong. Nor will they tell us what they’d do if things fall apart in Afghanistan and/or Iraq after our combat forces leave. Yes, we’ve done our part, and yes, Afghans and Iraqis should now see to their own defense and stability. And if they don’t? Well, we can always blame Obama for doing too little to pull our chestnuts out of the fires that were raging when he came into office.

Illegal immigration is another topic we’re getting lots of heat and little light on during the campaign.  Rick Perry was vilified for daring to suggest that children should be allowed to go to school whether their parents are in the state legally or not. The red meat crowd showed him no mercy for that, probably one of the most enlightened positions he’s taken as governor. Meanwhile, we talk torrents about building fences but ignore the question of what to do about the 12 or 13 million men, women and children who now live here in uncertain status.

These and other fundamental problems fester while our politicians hide behind slogans, empty promises and bravado. They’re unlikely to become more honest and forthcoming until we demand better from those who want our votes.  

Dick Virden is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who currently serves as diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.

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