On Monday, October 22, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney will face off in the final presidential debate, focusing this time on foreign policy issues. Foreign Policy at Brookings experts offer up the questions they would ask during the debate, if given the opportunity. Steven Pifer asks about the New START treaty and reducing the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals. Daniel Byman looks at the current situation in Syria, emphasizing the importance of addressing the crisis. Michael O’Hanlon comments on the lack of dialogue concerning Afghanistan from both campaigns and why it might come up during the debate. Bruce Riedel reviews the Pakistan-Afghanistan conflict and asks how each candidate plans to deal with the threats posed by terrorist groups in the region. Richard Bush and Jonathan Pollack explain why they think Romney will not challenge Obama on Korea policy.

The Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy: Questions for the Candidates on Nukes
Steven Pifer, Director, Arms Control Initiative, and Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe

When Barack Obama and Mitt Romney square off in their third debate, they will have a full foreign policy agenda. Nuclear arms control, unfortunately, may not make its way into the argument. It would be interesting to hear how the two would deal with nuclear weapons, which continue to pose the biggest threat to the United States. If given the opportunity, I would like for the following questions to be posed to the candidates:

  • To Governor Romney: you vigorously opposed the New START Treaty, even calling it the president’s “worst foreign policy mistake.” Under New START, the U.S. military can maintain 1550 deployed strategic nuclear warheads, each many times the size of the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima in 1945. Moreover, the United States has an additional 3000+ nuclear warheads, reserve and tactical, which are not constrained by New START. With an arsenal of almost 5000 nuclear weapons, do you really believe New START undermines U.S. security? If yes, how is U.S. security weakened? Which potential adversary might not be deterred by the U.S. arsenal?
  • To President Obama: while you laid out an impressive arms control agenda in 2009 and achieved New START, little of significance has happened in this area the past 18 months. The study to establish your guidance for U.S. nuclear weapons policy has been on hold, apparently out of concern that it might not play well politically. If you are reelected, what would you do in a second term to further reduce the nuclear danger? How much of a priority would you devote to this issue?

We see definite value in further nuclear arms reductions—in terms of cutting the number of nuclear weapons that can threaten the United States and its allies, in terms of saving defense dollars if we can build fewer strategic weapons in the future, and in terms of bolstering U.S. diplomatic credibility to enlist third countries to pressure Iran not to acquire nuclear arms. So we might be more closely aligned with the president’s answers. In any event, it would be good for the electorate to learn how the two candidates would approach this important challenge and how their approaches differ.

The Syria Struggle
Daniel Byman, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

Iran’s nuclear program, the Afghanistan mess, and the rise of China all should, and will, be on the docket for Monday’s foreign policy-focused presidential debate. Yet all these issues are long-term ones: the George W. Bush administration grappled with them as well as the Obama team when it entered office, and whoever wins the 2016 election will wrestle with them too.

Syria, however, is a different kettle of fish. The crisis that began over a year ago is metastasizing: its expansion is an immediate problem that a new administration must address. In Syria itself, the violence is surging. Over thirty thousand Syrians have died (no one knows exact figures), with over a million displaced within Syria and hundreds of thousands of refugees. The nightmare scenario is coming true: the civil war drags on and grows bloodier, as neither Bashar al-Asad’s regime nor the Syrian opposition can defeat the other. The opposition, moreover, has increasing numbers of jihadists in its ranks.

Even worse, the conflict is spilling over into Syria’s neighborhood. Turkey, a haven where refugees are organizing to fight against Asad, is being sucked into the conflict. Turkish and Syrian forces exchange fire across the border, while Damascus has resumed aid to Kurdish militants fighting the Turkish regime. In Lebanon and Iraq, partisans of Asad square off against supporters of the opposition: fighters from both countries have reportedly traveled to Syria, while street battles have erupted in Lebanon between the factions. Israeli security officials fear that some of Syria’s chemical arsenal will end up in the hands of the Lebanese Hizballah, and the world fears that these weapons might go to al Qaeda. And beyond Syria’s immediate neighborhood, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are emerging as major backers of the regime (Iran) and the opposition (Saudi Arabia and Qatar).

The Obama administration mixed hope and diplomacy in its first-term attempts to resolve this crisis. The administration initially hoped that Asad would fall of his own accord, ending the conflict without a significant role. Diplomacy’s chances, always slim, became nil as even the UN officials tasked with resolving the conflict admitted that they had little chance of success.

The United States needs a new Syria policy as the growing conflict risks destabilizing this critical neighborhood. We should have no illusions – all our choices are lousy, and some are risky. But nor should we soldier on with a policy that is clearly failing: the United States should support the Syrian opposition to improve their chances of toppling Asad and to make them more coherent, and thus make Syria less likely to slip into chaos, in a post-Asad era. But the opposition is fragmented and weak, and Washington also needs to lead its regional allies and the international community to at least contain the conflict if it cannot be resolved.

Michael O’Hanlon, Director of Research, Foreign Policy, and Senior Fellow, 21st Century Defense Initiative

Some observers have criticized President Obama and Governor Romney for not talking more about Afghanistan during this campaign. While the vice presidential debate featured an exchange on the subject, the presidential candidates have in fact not spoken much about it. To me, a supporter of the mission overall, that is not necessarily such a bad thing in this case. Because of the nation’s understandable war-weariness, any protracted discussion of the subject would likely create incentives to promise a faster departure than current strategy would advise. That said, with 68,000 U.S. troops still on the ground there, the issue may come up in the last debate and last two weeks of the campaign more generally. If it does, we should listen to the words of advice from a seasoned diplomat just back from a tour there.

A few weeks ago, Ryan Crocker visited Washington after completing his year-long tour as U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan, as well as a storied 38-year career in the Foreign Service during which he also served as ambassador to Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Pakistan. While D.C. was caught up in everything from the Benghazi attacks to the presidential race to early enthusiasm over the Redskins, Crocker’s visit and the subject of Afghanistan in particular got relatively little notice.

That is regrettable. Crocker’s speech at the Carnegie Endowment on September 17, covered by C-SPAN, and his public conversation with us at Brookings on September 18 were hugely informative and important. For those despondent about this war effort, they were moderately encouraging as well. There was as usual no naive optimism in Crocker’s remarks, no promise of an easy and quick win. Known affectionately, if somewhat sardonically, as “Mr. Sunshine,” a nickname first given him by President Bush, Crocker is famous for hard-hitting and extremely realistic assessments of the challenges facing America abroad. Those lucky enough to visit Iraq during the surge often remember a beaming Dave Petraeus standing beside a grim-faced Crocker, two very different personalities leading America’s greatest military turnaround since Inchon. So any hopeful words from Crocker merit particular attention.

And there were many, in fact. Crocker began by noting the enormous progress that Afghanistan has made since 2002, when Crocker did his first tour there as head of mission shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban. As he put it:

“You know, as we kind of gauge where we are in Afghanistan, we’ve got to do what we don’t do terribly well, which is take some perspective on it. You know, I won’t take you back to Amanullah Khan and the 1920s, but I will take you back to my own experience, which was arriving in Afghanistan about 10 days after President Karzai got there from Bonn, the day after New Year’s 2002, and what it looked like then. And I’ve seen a lot of bad places, like Lebanon during the civil war, and this was worse. It was total, absolute, utter devastation. Driving in from Bagram, nothing but mud fields and destroyed houses. You dare not stray from what was left of the pavement on the road because of the minefields on both sides. The bridge was gone, so you had to ford, which was a neat trick in a fully armored vehicle on muddy and highly inclined banks, to drive into a city that looked like Berlin in 1945. No electricity, no water, no security forces, a completely dead economy, no nothing.

So if the end of 2001 or beginning of 2002 is your starting point, Afghanistan is looking beyond pretty good. If you were out there in May, you know, Kabul is a major South Asian metropolis: huge traffic snarls, commercial activity, sidewalks thronged, stores open, you know, 8+ million kids in school, life expectancy vastly increased, close to 350,000 security forces in training or deployed. You know, the progress is extraordinary. Challenges we’re going to get into; they’re immense. So unlike many of my colleagues, I mean, I had that ’02 image and the distance that the Afghans have traversed with help from their friends is really cosmic.”

Then there is the matter of those Afghan security forces. Hampered by illiteracy and corruption and ethnic tension, they are now also infamous in the United States for the insider attacks that have killed more than 50 NATO troops this year alone. Crocker hardly trivialized these problems. But he also provided vivid illustrations of how much those forces have grown and improved.

The fact is in basically a period of just a little over three years, because we only really got serious, as you know, about sustained, large-scale training in 2008 and 2009, well, what that has produced in a fairly short time is quite extraordinary. We have Afghan units leading in almost 50 percent of operations, and many of these are not partnered. When we had the Koran incident out at Bagram, we went through a period of a couple of weeks in which we simply – “we,” the International Security Assistance Force – could not be in the field. We would just be gasoline on the fire. So Afghan forces had to deal with the protests on their own. They were not trained for it. They were not equipped for it, for riot control. They behaved very credibly and I think the surge bought the time for that training program to produce those kinds of results.”

Crocker also spoke of Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential race. While hardly predicting the imminent victory of an Afghan George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, he had some encouraging things to say on this subject too: “Politically, 2014 elections, everybody’s talking to everybody. Everybody is maneuvering. It kind of looks like American primaries. That’s not a bad thing…I think President Karzai is committed to leaving office in 2014, which obviously – and these are his own words, it’s essential for the legitimacy of the democratic process that in 2014 you have a president who is not named Karzai. He is thinking, again, very long term; he’s thinking of legacy. And I think, again, that has him focusing on not just an outcome, but a process that institutionally strengthens Afghanistan.”

Perhaps best of all was Crocker’s assessment of Afghanistan’s people. Normally in western debates, we emphasize how shallow this talent pool has become after 30 years of warfare as well as rampant corruption in Kabul today. Alas those harsh realities cannot be ignored. But consider again Crocker’s words:

“In terms of human talent, you know, I was surprised to find at least as great and very possibly greater depth and breadth of talent in Afghanistan than I did in Iraq. Some extremely capable ministers, very capable deputies underneath them, you know, wrestling with some of the most volatile and changeable politics you can imagine, more so than Iraq. You’ve met many of them in finance, in mining, in health, in education. I mean, these are people who, you know, could run just about anybody’s ministry.

At the political level, too, I was impressed by both changing attitudes among, shall we say, the jihadi generation. It’s very interesting, for example, Afghanistan has two vice presidents who spent a lot of time trying to kill each other in the ’90s, Fahim Khan and Karim Khalili, to watch them huddling together in front of the palace kind of figuring out how they were going to game a cabinet meeting together. And, you know, some of the more frank among this generation will say we destroyed this country. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a name that still chills blood – that which is around that he left to be chilled, that wasn’t spilled – you know, as head of the International Relations Committee of the Wolesi Jirga has played a very positive role in shepherding international agreements, including our own strategic partnership, through the corridors of the parliament.

Then there’s that – and I’m really glad you raised this, there’s that new element. It’s the 20-somethings, the early 30-somethings, it’s the women, you know, the immediate post-university generation and their younger brothers and sisters, and their older brothers and sisters to an extent. In other words, those who came of age in perhaps a volatile and dangerous, but, nonetheless, free and open Afghanistan with access to the Internet, with access to a plethora of television, radio stations, newspapers, and so forth, boy, they ain’t their daddies and mommies. And can be, as you’ve heard yourself, blistering on the subject of their daddies and mommies. They see a new Afghanistan. And I think one of our major obligations as an international community is to buy them the time to really make a difference in politics. I’m not sure how much difference you’re going to see in 2012; that’s awful close. But I think in 2017, they’ll be there.”

Of course, to paraphrase Crocker from another time period, all of this is hard, and it’s hard every day. To underscore the difficulty of moving beyond the burdens of recent history, not only within Afghanistan but Pakistan as well, at Brookings Crocker also quoted Faulkner – “the past is never dead, in fact it’s not even past.” But for a country where America has invested so much, and still has such high stakes, Crocker’s restrained but still reassuring words should carry great weight in our future policy choices – and in any discussion of the subject Mssrs. Obama and Romney carry out between now and November 6.

The Pakistan-Afghan Challenge: What Should Be Asked and What to Listen for in Monday’s Presidential Debate
Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

A drone strike in Pakistan this month apparently killed the Belgian-Tunisian terrorist who mentored and trained the French-Algerian man who murdered six people in Toulouse, France this spring. Moez Garsallaoui was an al Qaeda operative who trained Mohammad Merah during a visit to Pakistan in 2010.  It was the latest of dozens of drone strikes flown from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

Since the al Qaeda attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed over 200 in 1998, the epicenter of the terror threat to America and its allies has been Afghanistan and especially Pakistan. From 9/11 to the 2008 attack on Mumbai, the terrorists have plotted their schemes in Karachi, Kandahar, and Abbottabad. Since our last election in 2008, Pakistan has been the launch platform for plots to attack the New York City subway and Times Square. Three of the five terrorists on our most wanted list are in Pakistan today.

President Obama rightly takes credit for putting intense pressure on the terror sanctuary in Pakistan. He has ordered over 300 drone strikes into Pakistan and the SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Every mission came from bases in Afghanistan; almost all were done without Pakistan’s support or approval. 

Both Obama and Governor Romney rightly agree we should transition our troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. But what we need to hear from them Monday night is how they will keep the pressure on the terrorists in Pakistan when we bring our troops home from Afghanistan.  How will we continue to undertake the necessary counterterror missions from Afghan bases?  Will we keep some troops behind to ensure security for our drones and other counterterror assets?  How many?  How will we persuade Afghans to let us use their bases to help us fight terror?

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, which enjoys Pakistani army support, won’t end in 2014. What if the Taliban takes back Kandahar or Konar after NATO forces leave, will we go back? Do we have a plan if transition stumbles? These are very tough issues that involve our homeland security and the stability of Pakistan, home to the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. Both candidates need to explain what they will do before and after 2014 in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  After all, 2014 is right in the middle of the term they are asking us to elect them to serve in November.

Romney Will Not Challenge Obama on Korea
Richard Bush, Director, Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies, Senior Fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair, Foreign Policy
Jonathan Pollack, Acting Director, John L. Thornton China Center, and Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy

The odds are that the Korean Peninsula will not be a subject of discussion in the foreign policy debate, amid the swirl of other, more immediately pressing issues. It has featured hardly at all in the campaign. If it is raised, it will be revealing what tack Governor Romney takes, in light of what his campaign has said so far.

In discussing North Korea, the Romney for President website begins with grave warnings about the threat that the Pyongyang poses to regional peace, our Asian allies, U.S. forces in the region, and the effort to stop proliferation. Fair enough. It then promises that if elected, “Mitt Romney will commit to eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its nuclear weapons infrastructure.” That is the right policy goal, even if the prospects of achieving it in the near term are virtually nil. Then, curiously, the passage says, “A key mistake in U.S. policy toward North Korea has been to grant it a series of carrots in return for only illusory cooperation. Each step the world has taken toward North Korea has been met with further provocations and expansion of its nuclear program. Over the years, North Korea has found that its pursuit of a nuclear weapon reaps it material and diplomatic rewards, taking away any incentive for it to end its program.”

The pertinent question is who the Romney campaign is criticizing? One answer would be the Clinton Administration, when negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program really began. But it was also early in the process of testing North Korean intentions, and Clinton’s policy was quickly replaced in the first year of George W. Bush’s Administration. Second, to place the label of “more carrots, no sticks” on the Obama policy would certainly be a bum rap. Indeed, the Obama administration has taken a decidedly tough line on North Korea: punishing North Korean provocations with additional multilateral sanctions; consulting with and strengthening cooperation with South Korea and Japan; and pushing China to exercise all available influence on Pyongyang. To be sure, Obama was willing to test North Korean intentions on several occasions, which is the diplomatically responsible thing to do, but he responded to North Korean defiance with firmness. In short, the administration’s stated approach is to confront North Korea with “a stark choice.”

The period that best fits Romney’s critique is 2005 to 2008, during the second Bush Administration. Its dominant theme was to pursue a grand bargain with North Korea (denuclearization in return for diplomatic normalization and economic assistance). When North Korea detonated a nuclear device in October 2006, the Bush Administration redoubled its efforts to energize negotiations and, at North Korean insistence, abandoned financial sanctions that were beginning to bite. Having warned Pyongyang after its nuclear test that any proliferation actions would be punished, it took no action when information about North Korean transfers of nuclear technology to Syria came to light.

So the main reason that Romney will not challenge Obama on Korea is that current policy is quite similar to his own proposal. Romney’s beef is with the last administration, not this one.