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Foreign Policy A Fresh Target For GOP Hopefuls

Nov 14, 2011
Originally published on November 14, 2011 9:22 pm

The economy is expected to dominate all other issues in next year's presidential race. But in recent days, both the Republican candidates and President Obama have focused on foreign policy.

The president is in the midst of a weeklong diplomatic trip to the Asia-Pacific region. And the GOP White House hopefuls took part in their first debate devoted to foreign affairs over the weekend — with candidates criticizing Obama's handling of Iran, China and suspected terrorists.

Several of the Republicans took issue with Obama's position on waterboarding. Less than 48 hours after taking office, Obama signed an executive order that outlawed harsh interrogation tactics.

"If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. It was very effective. It gained information for our country," Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann said.

Businessman Herman Cain also endorsed waterboarding. And while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wasn't asked about it at Saturday night's debate, he faced a similar question four years ago and refused to rule out waterboarding.

"I oppose torture. I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form," Romney said at the time. When asked if he thought waterboarding was torture, Romney said that as a presidential candidate, he didn't think it was wise to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use.

At a news conference in Hawaii on Sunday night, Obama defended his decision to outlaw waterboarding.

"That's not who we are. That's not how we operate," Obama said. "We don't need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism, and we did the right thing by ending that practice."

China And Iran

Obama can point to progress in the effort against terrorism, including the death of Osama bin Laden. And the president earns higher marks for foreign policy than he does for his handling of the economy.

At the debate, Romney tried to attack on both fronts, saying he'd take a tougher stance against China for keeping its currency artificially low.

"We can't just sit back and let China run all over us," Romney said. "People say, 'Well, you'll start a trade war.' There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs, and we're going to stand up to China."

Romney's line against China is tougher than some of his fellow Republicans. Obama, who met privately with the Chinese president this weekend, avoids Romney's hard-line tactics but agrees with the need for China's currency to appreciate more quickly.

"The problem is ... you've got a bunch of export producers in China who like the system as it is, and making changes are difficult for them politically," Obama said. "I get it, but the United States and other countries I think understandably feel that enough is enough."

Republicans' toughest language this weekend was directed at Iran. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency last week once again shined a spotlight on Iran's apparent effort to develop nuclear weapons. Romney said the president has allowed that to happen, calling it "Obama's greatest failing, from a foreign policy standpoint."

Obama says the U.S. and its allies have made steady and determined progress against Iran's nuclear program. And while Obama's effort to build international pressure hasn't yet stopped Iran, Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says it has left that country increasingly isolated.

"The broad international front is partly because the Obama administration gave the Iranians an opportunity to engage, and the Iranians walked away from that opportunity," Alterman says.

Some Republicans called for covert operations in Iran or teaming up with Israel in a military strike. While Obama hasn't gone that far, Stuart Eizenstat, who oversaw sanctions in the Clinton Treasury Department, says the president's policies toward Iran have been tough, sound and surprisingly bipartisan.

"I think while the presidential candidates try to find some difference, there really has not been very much difference, nor do I think there would be if a Republican president were faced with these same choices," Eizenstat says.

The GOP candidates will have another chance to spell out their preferred foreign policies when they debate in Washington next week.

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In the 2012 presidential race, the economy has been the dominant issue. But in the past several days, both the Republican candidates and President Obama have focused on foreign policy; the president, on a trip around the Asia Pacific region and GOP White House hopefuls in weekend debate.

NPR's Scott Horsley gives us a sense of where the fault lines lie.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Less than 48 hours after taking office, President Obama signed an executive order outlawing harsh interrogation tactics such as waterboarding. In their debate this weekend, several Republicans took issue with that move, including Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman.

If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country. And I...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Businessman Herman Cain also endorsed waterboarding. And while former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was not asked about it Saturday night, a spokesman says Romney stands by the position he took in a debate four years ago, when he refused to rule out waterboarding.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is waterboarding torture?

As a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let me just say this. They're wrong.

HORSLEY: Speaking at a news conference in Hawaii last night, Mr. Obama said putting a stop to waterboarding was the right thing to do.

OBAMA: That's not who we are. That's not how we operate. We don't need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama can point to progress in that effort, including the death of Osama bin Laden. And the president earns higher marks for foreign policy than he does for his handling of the economy. Romney tried to attack on both fronts, saying he would take a tougher stance against China for keeping its currency artificially low.

MITT ROMNEY: We can't just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, well, you'll start a trade war. There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs, and we're going to stand up to China.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Romney's line against China is tougher than some of his fellow Republicans. Mr. Obama, who met privately with the Chinese president this weekend, avoids Romney's hard-line tactics but agrees with the need for China's currency to appreciate more quickly.

OBAMA: The problem is is that you've got a bunch of export producers in China who like the system as it is. And, you know, making changes are difficult for them politically. I get it. But the United States and other countries, I think understandably, feel that enough's enough.

HORSLEY: The Republicans directed their toughest language this weekend at Iran. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency last week once again shined a spotlight on that country's apparent effort to develop nuclear weapons. Romney says Mr. Obama has allowed that to happen.

ROMNEY: This is, of course, President Obama's greatest failing from a foreign policy standpoint.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama insists the U.S. and its allies have made steady and determined progress against Iran's nuclear program. And while efforts to build international pressure have not yet stopped Iran, Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says they have left that country increasingly isolated.

JON ALTERMAN: The broad international front is partly because the Obama administration gave the Iranians an opportunity to engage, and the Iranians walked away from that opportunity.

HORSLEY: Some Republicans called for covert operations in Iran or teaming up with Israel in a military strike. While Mr. Obama has not gone that far, Stuart Eizenstat, who oversaw sanctions in the Clinton Treasury Department, said the president's policies towards Iran have been have tough, sound and surprisingly bipartisan.

STUART EIZENSTAT: I think while the presidential candidates try to find some difference, there really has not been very much difference, and nor do I think there would be if a Republican president were faced with these same choices.

HORSLEY: GOP candidates will have another chance to spell out their preferred foreign policies when they debate in Washington next week. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.