AEI answers your foreign policy questions ahead of the final presidential debate


Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shakes hands with President Barack Obama at the conclusion of the second presidential debate in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 16, 2012.

You asked and we answered. We got some great questions about what you want to hear from Mitt Romney and President Obama at tonight's final presidential debate. AEI's foreign and defense policy team has provided answers the candidates might want to consider. Check out their responses to the issues on your minds.

Jeff Salvati: If we did not need oil from the Middle East would we really (care about the region)?

Danielle Pletka: A fascinating question. In 2011, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, imports from the Persian Gulf were only 16.4 percent of U.S. Imports (slightly up from the year before).  Some reports indicate the numbers may be lower this year, particular with new supplies coming on stream from the United States. But OPEC countries in the Middle East have by far the majority of proven oil reserves, and are likely to remain substantial players in the market for many years to come.  It's important to remember there's a global market in oil, and where we buy our oil from doesn't really affect prices as much as it impacts perceptions. So, here's the $64,000 question put another way: Would we care about the Middle East, not if we didn't buy oil from them, but if they had no oil? And I suspect the answer is — much less.  Not because it's all about the oil, but because oil has empowered countries like Saudi Arabia, fueled Iran's nuclear program, financed the likes of Osama bin Laden and allowed so many dictators to do so much for so few.

JB White: It appears we, as a third party, have armed Salafist opposition groups in Syria. What would you do to prevent a Salafist takeover of the Syrian opposition movement? And what would you do to improve our national intelligence capabilities to prevent these types of intelligence failures?

Danielle Pletka: I don't believe that we have armed Salafist groups, but we have certainly facilitated their arming by Gulf countries. The right thing to do would have been for us to intervene early and on the side of those most involved in this fight at the early stages — Syrians fighting for the country.  Not Salafists fighting the Alawite infidel. We have an interest in seeing Assad fall, to be sure, but more importantly, we have an interest in what rises in his ashes. By dealing ourselves out of this fight, we have ensured that others who don't value the same things we do have much more of a say.  Regarding intelligence, the right thing to do is to have accountability.  No one lost their job in the wake of 9/11, the worst intel failure in our history. When failure is rewarded, there's little wonder it continues. We also need more competition in intelligence; markets, even secret ones, work.  The best analysts welcome a challenge, and are better for thinking past their biases.  Our intelligence community has missed so much, it is a wonder there aren't more calls for reform. 

Melitta Vahalik: Mr. Obama, why are we funneling money to nations who detest us who in turn funnel it to nations under sanctions/embargoes or terrorists? Mr. Romney, what will you do to decrease the amount of money going to nations who detest us and continue to brutalize all who will not conform to their beliefs (and even those who do conform)?

Danielle Pletka: A very fair question. I hope that what Governor Romney (and the president) says is that we cannot continue to funnel money to countries that treat our people, our property and our values with complete disregard.   We cannot force others to behave as we wish, but we have no need to subsidize it.

Charles Warring: Did the Iraq SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) cover foreign fighters not of Iraqi citizenship? If not, why did we hand over foreign fighters such as Daqduq over to the Iraqis? And what does this mean to the next SOFA agreement in Afghanistan where there are more foreign jihadist fighters?

Frederick W. Kagan: When President Obama chose to terminate negotiations for the extension of the American military presence in Iraq, he also chose not to pursue any other agreements with Baghdad that would have covered such issues. There is no longer any SOFA between the United States in Iraq. As of Jan. 1, 2012, therefore, our diplomatic and military relationship with Iraq is exactly the same as it is with any other country that is not an American ally and has no American military forces present. President Obama chose not to pursue negotiations that might have led to a different relationship that might conceivably have given the U.S. different legal rights regarding the detention of foreign fighters not of Iraqi citizenship.
Negotiations for a SOFA and a series of formal technical agreements with Afghanistan are in an early stage.  Questions about the status of detainees are at the forefront of those discussions.  Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been very aggressive in his demands that the U.S. turns over all detainees to his government, it is less clear that he would take such a firm stance regarding foreign fighters. The challenge in Iraq in particular was that Ali Mussa Daqduq was a senior member of Lebanese Hezbollah and an important element of the Iranian effort to defeat the U.S. in Iraq and establish Tehran’s influence there before his arrest in early 2007. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki was under intense pressure by Iran to insist that Daqduq be handed over to the Iraqis and, without the prospect of any American military counter-balance to that pressure, it was highly unlikely that Maliki would readily have acceded to demands to allow the U.S. to retain custody of Daqduq.  The foreign fighters in Afghanistan are not primarily from states that are likely either to fight for them or to have much influence on Kabul if they did.  The prospect of getting an agreement with Afghanistan regarding the detention of foreign fighters is therefore much better—assuming, of course, that there is an agreement of any kind.

Susan Neff 1) Why is Iraq not giving us more oil? Seems like we should qualify as their No. 1 customer. 2) Didn't we give weapons to the "freedom fighters" in Libya? Were any of those weapons used in the 9/11 terrorist attack(s)?

Michael Rubin: 1) The question isn’t really whether the Iraqis are going to give the United States oil — Iraq isn’t going to give anyone oil. Rather, the controversy revolves around whether Baghdad should award American companies contracts to exploit Iraqi oil fields. Certainly, American companies have won Iraqi contracts, most notably ExxonMobil, in addition to several smaller companies and, according to The New York Times, America oil services firms such as Halliburton, Baker Hughes, Weatherford International and Schlumberger do much of the actual drilling, pipeline construction and other oil field infrastructure. There remain two obstacles, however, to even greater American (or, indeed, Western) involvement:

•    The first obstacle is the terms of the agreements themselves. Hussein al-Shahristani, Iraq’s oil minister between 2006 and 2010, negotiated the bulk of Iraq’s oil contracts. While open to Western investment, Shahristani was a very shrewd negotiator. Both in order to underline Iraq’s regained sovereignty and also to support his own political ambitions, Shahristani sought tougher terms for oil companies and a greater profit share for Iraq than the international standard.

•    The second is the unresolved status of Iraq’s oil laws. While the bulk of Iraqi oil is in southern Iraq, there has been an oil boom in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Because the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil have not been able to reach final agreement on revenue and profit sharing, on details about the legal right of the Kurds to sign their own contracts, or on the status of the so-called disputed territories: oil-rich areas but Kurdish-populated areas long controlled by the Iraqi central government but claimed but the Kurdish region. Against the backdrop of these disputes, Kurdish authorities have offered American companies contracts on better terms than the Iraqi central government has. In response, the Baghdad government has threatened to retaliate against American firms, warning them that they could lose their contracts in southern Iraq if they do business with the Kurds.

2) For several months after the Libyan uprising against Moammar Gaddafi’s regime began, the United States refused to arm Libyan opposition groups, instead focusing on non-lethal communications and intelligence assistance. On May 30, 2012, for example, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told CNN that, “Even in Libya, we did not take the very exceptional decision to arm the opposition.” Libya was a prime example of President Obama’s strategy to ‘lead from behind’ and work through other allies in order to assist Libyan freedom fighters. Herein may lay the problem: While Obama considers Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey staunch allies who supported the American desire to oust Gaddafi and aid the Benghazi-based rebels, all three supported Islamist groups more radical than many in Washington should have been comfortable with.

3) With regard to the weaponry, time and intelligence will tell. Many of the weapons in Libya — and, alas, now across the Middle East and into sub-Saharan Africa — originate in Gaddafi’s own stockpiles.  Had the White House authorized more limited U.S. presence on the ground in Libya, it is possible American forces could have secured some of these weapons depots before they fell into more radical hands.

Zach Moore: When is the initiation of force on other countries or groups of people ever justified? Does America have the right to impose democracy on other people?

Gary J. Schmitt: Universally, the principle of self-defense is the touchstone of when a country can and should initiate the use of force against another nation or peoples. However, the notion of “self-defense” has also traditionally included protecting one’s citizens from arbitrary detention or execution by another state, responding to attacks against allied nations with whom we have a security treaty, and, under certain circumstances, taking preemptive action against a state or a group determined to do us and/or our allies significant harm.  Finally, there is the question of whether or not America should intervene in cases when it has the ability to stop a foreign government or an armed faction within a country from slaughtering some segment of its population, but which does not threaten the U.S. directly. To that question, there has been no consistent policy.  Decisions about whether to intervene or not in instances not clearly tied to an armed attack against the United States will be matters of judgment (and debate) and that is why the U.S. Constitution takes care to place that judgment in the hands of elected officials, with the ultimate guarantee being Congress’ ability to fund or not fund those interventions.
America does not have the right to impose democracy on others.  However, since America’s founding, we have believed, as the Declaration of Independence states, that governments derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed” and, hence, circumstances permitting, we are inclined to aid those attempting to secure this right.  And, when, as a result of war, a particular regime is removed from power by the U.S. or allies, we believe that replacing that regime, if possible, with a government that rests on the consent of its people and is designed to protect their fundamental rights is not only strategically advantageous to the U.S. but also morally correct.

Francis Edward Mensa: What principles actually inform our foreign policy? What are our specific national interests in relation to our foreign policy? Is it based on the currents of the times or there're some underlying principles?

Thomas Donnelly: From the Founding, Americans have striven to create what President Bush called "a balance of power that favors freedom."  That is, we understand our material interests in security and prosperity to be inseparable from the larger question of human liberty.  When America is strong, more people are free; when more people are free America is safer.

These (national interests) were well-defined in a nonpartisan way by 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel, co-chaired by former Defense Secretary William Perry and former National Security Adviser Steve Hadley.  First, the security of the American "homeland," that is, not just the United States proper but the region of North America and the Caribbean basin; think of the Monroe Doctrine. Second, the security of the international "commons," the seas (for trade and commerce as well as in strictly naval terms), skies, space and now "cyberspace."  Third, the geopolitical balance of power in Europe, the greater Middle East and East Asia. And finally, the promotion of a variety of global "public goods," particularly the cause of human liberty but also including things like humanitarian disaster relief.

Both currents and underlying principles play a role. The principles endure, but must be calculated as conditions change. Obviously, the Founders had no idea of the importance of security the skies, space or Internet traffic. They also appreciated that, although the potential power of the United States was great, its actual power in the late 18th century was very limited. Succeeding generations have applied the principles to their times. When the United States had the wealth and the industrial resources to project power across the oceans to Asia and Europe, we did so. When we had the power to defeat and, ultimately, democratize dictatorial regimes in Germany and Japan, we did so. When called upon to lead the "Free World" against Soviet Communism, we did so. And so we, reluctantly and, often, only when we must, continue to shoulder the burdens of preserving the peace, fostering prosperity and promoting the human right to liberty.  The world changes, but we try to remain true to our basic principles.

Joseph Ugoh: Whoever emerges as president, I want to know what (should be done) to help Africa get a better deal in the World Trade Organization and what does he intend to do to help ease Africa’s debt crisis?

Paul Wolfowitz: First of all, thanks for asking about Africa.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much voter interest in the subject, which may also explain why neither candidate has shown much interest, not even President Obama, our first African-American president. 

What Africans need most is not more debt relief.  In 2005, President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair started a major round of debt relief, the Multilateral Debt Relief initiative, which could potentially forgive some $50 billion in debt owed to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and African Development Bank by the world’s poorest countries. What poor Africans need most are jobs, which can only be generated by healthy economic growth. 

Fortunately, some African countries are making great progress – six are among the world’s 10 fastest growing economies. U.S. policies have contributed to this growth, including the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act started under President Clinton and the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) established under President Bush.  President Bush also launched two important African health initiatives, the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which have helped save millions of Africans from dying of malaria or HIV/AIDS.

The people of sub-Saharan Africa are among the most pro-American in the world – and roughly 30 percent are Muslim – so the U.S. has strategic interests as well as moral ones in seeing Africans prosper. Fortunately, much can be done without additional taxpayer money, for example by creating free enterprise zones or by facilitating American private investment in Africa’s badly needed infrastructure improvements.

Nick Green: Our largest trade partner and debt holder is China. How do we handle the way they manipulate their currency without them crashing our economy by dumping our debt?

Dan Blumenthal: China cannot dump our debt without destroying its own economy. China’s economic system is so distorted that it has very few other places to put its surplus reserves, and therefore buys U.S. treasury securities.  The way for us to handle China's predatory economic behavior is to go after the subsidies they provide to their state-owned companies (SOEs). A couple options include disallowing investment from SOEs or taking this issue to the WTO, where we often win.
Randy Foreman: Why doesn't the foreign policy establishment do a complete re-examination about China from constantly espousing its ascendency to the reality of its potential collapse?

Dan Blumenthal: This is a very important question. While we do not know what is in store for China, we do know that it is far less stable than we thought previously. We need to find and engage people in China who are not part of the party establishment so that we have people to work with if the party collapses.  We also must coordinate with our allies in the region on potential regional and perhaps even global instability if the party collapses.

Brian McConville: Since Russia and China keep blocking resolutions about Syria in the U.N., why doesn’t the U.S. push for resolutions against China for Tibet and against Russia for Chechnya, until they drop their veto over Syria?

Gary J. Schmitt:  Unfortunately, the U.N. Security Council operates on the principle of the “lowest common denominator” when it comes to reaching a consensus on matters that come before it.  Because neither the leadership in Beijing nor in Moscow appears to care how “world opinion” views their decision, and since both are unwilling to concede for their own non-democratic purposes that governments should rest on the true consent of their own people, a tit-for-tat approach would not lead them to change their positions.  If the crisis in Syria is to be properly addressed, it will require, first, leadership from the United States and, second, joint action by our liberal democratic allies and friends in the region. The precedent in this instance would be NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, and which was done without U.N. sanction.

Also Visit
AEIdeas Blog The American Magazine

What's new on AEI

AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters
image A nation divided by marriage
image Teaching reform
image Socialist party pushing $20 minimum wage defends $13-an-hour job listing
AEI on Facebook
Events Calendar
  • 20
  • 21
  • 22
  • 23
  • 24
Monday, October 20, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Warfare beneath the waves: The undersea domain in Asia

We welcome you to join us for a panel discussion of the undersea military competition occurring in Asia and what it means for the United States and its allies.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014 | 8:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m.
AEI Election Watch 2014: What will happen and why it matters

AEI’s Election Watch is back! Please join us for two sessions of the longest-running election program in Washington, DC. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014 | 1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.
What now for the Common Core?

We welcome you to join us at AEI for a discussion of what’s next for the Common Core.

Event Registration is Closed
Thursday, October 23, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.
Brazil’s presidential election: Real challenges, real choices

Please join AEI for a discussion examining each candidate’s platform and prospects for victory and the impact that a possible shift toward free-market policies in Brazil might have on South America as a whole.

Event Registration is Closed
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.