The 2012 American presidential election seems to be focused on the United States economy. But, historically, this has not always been the case. In the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, national security played a crucial role.
Obama entered office as a wartime president, inheriting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, but right now it is the economy that will likely determine who is elected as the next president. This is exemplified in the 2012 presidential debate that was devoted to foreign policy. Both Mitt Romney and Obama continuously tried to turn the debate into one over domestic affairs. In 1992, the campaign strategist for Bill Clinton, James Carville, famously said, "It's the economy, stupid." This aptly describes the 2012 elections. If the foreign affairs debate is any indication of what the outcome will be, the 2012 presidential elections will likely be determined by the candidate which is better able to convince the American population that he will be able to promote the American economy's recovery after the 2008 crisis.
While foreign policy issues may not be the biggest concern for most voters, the next president will be facing a daunting set of international issues, as he will be dealing with the three most important international problems America currently faces. These are the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran, civil war in Libya, and the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.
During the foreign affairs debate, Obama took pride in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Furthermore, he accused Romney of being all over the place on foreign affairs. "'On a whole range of issues, whether it's the Middle East, whether it's Afghanistan, whether it's Iraq, whether it's now Iran, you've been all over the map,' Obama said." Romney's reaction was cautious and not aggressive unlike what it had been, for example, in the previous debates and in the primaries. This was likely a part of his strategy, as he wanted to reassure the public of his capacity to handle foreign affairs.
Unlike before, Romney often agreed with Obama on foreign affairs. While Romney accused Obama of distancing America from Israel over the handling of the Iranian nuclear threat, they both declared they would defend the Jewish state. Both also agreed they would prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and would resort to military action if necessary. Romney did, however, say that Obama's inactivity gave Iran time to move closer to nuclear capability.
As such, Romney repeatedly agreed with the basic positions Obama put forward, although he promised to provide stronger support to Israel and was less hesitant in resorting to military action against Iran. On Afghanistan, Romney previously believed that Obama was bringing the troops home too soon but during the presidential debates he did agree with Obama's policy to bring them home in 2014. His only reservation was the announcement of the withdrawal date.
On Libya, Romney praised Obama for toppling the Qaddafi regime but accused him of not acting quickly enough in announcing that the death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three Americans as the result of a terrorist attack. This was ultimately shown to be false. Furthermore, Romney blamed Obama's administration for the lack of security in Libya.
Notably, Libya did not posses nuclear weapons, nor did it pose a threat to the United States. Yet, Obama still intervened. This was done on humanitarian grounds. Surprisingly, Romney concurs with Obama's intervention in Libya. However, Romney does question Obama on his lack of action in Syria. This is a feeble attempt on Romney's part to suggest that Obama has been inconsistent.
Both candidates share goals in bringing troops back home and exporting peace to the Middle East, though Romney does not explain how he would go about doing the latter. It is no wonder foreign affairs have taken a back seat in the 2012 elections. This is because the two candidates do not have distinctive platforms to offer and because the economy seems more pressing.
During the primaries, Romney's criticisms of Obama's foreign policy had a harsher tone. He said "he [would] do things differently from Barack Obama" but is currently offering almost identical policies on foreign affairs. His diffusing the issues and playing down the previous criticisms seem to be strategically motivated. What started off as a divisive foreign policy agenda for Romney is now tame and veered back to the centre. Foreign policy will likely resurface as a divisive issue after the elections, if Romney were elected given his manifest indecisiveness.
During the foreign affairs debate Romney accused Obama of going on an apology tour in the Middle East and not visiting Israel. "You said that... America dictated to other nations," Romney said during the debate. Adding, "Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
An analysis on CNN Politics points out that Obama made trips to the Middle East to rebuild bridges where they were previously burned. "Romney's claim is false. The president has mentioned past U.S. mistakes and flaws during speeches about the larger issues of building bridges to other countries. But he has never apologized or gone on an 'apology tour.'" Romney's language is yet another rhetorical device but it does suggest that he will take a harder line with regards to America's foreign policy, contrarily to his apparent concurrence with Obama during the debates. His ideas have continuously been shifting.
Another example: the Economist describes Romney's potential presidency as a "more hawkish line abroad, with more criticism of enemies and more buttering-up of old allies..." Yet during the foreign affairs presidential debate, Romney frequently used the word 'peace' as though to suggest otherwise. Thus, while foreign policy is not a pressing point during this election, it would arguably have been, had Romney been more upfront with his views. This explains why he took a more moderate and calm approach compared to the primaries.
Unlike in the elections immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Americans do not want to pay for wars that they do not see as related to an existential threat. As Stephen Walt accurately offered, "foreign policy and national security tends to produce a lot of surprises... George W. Bush was totally blindsided by 9/11, an event that shaped almost everything he subsequently did in foreign and defense policy." Similarly, "Obama didn't see the Arab spring coming, yet he's had to devote a lot of time and attention to figuring out what to do (or not to do) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere." Foreign policy and national security are unpredictable and often play a significant role in American politics. The rise of China is another example of a foreign country that will eventually influence America's domestic affairs. Yet there has been little discussion of China in this election.
Overall, while foreign policy may have been eclipsed by domestic economic concerns during this election, the U.S. still needs to be proactive, given the current international political climate. However, the candidates do not currently seem to present distinctive positions with regards to foreign policy. This requires further scrutiny by the population. Of the two candidates, Romney is likely to change his diverge from his tame rhetoric if elected, as he seems to have a record of inconsistency throughout this campaign.