War With Iran, Cyber Warfare, and the Top 5 Foreign Policy Issues for Obama and Romney to Battle Over in 2012


Mitt Romney is more or less assured of the Republican nomination for president at this point. As he readies his campaign to go full-force against President Barack Obama, he’ll need to hone his foreign policy, a critical component of the commander-in-chief job.

Foreign policy will be a hot debate item on the campaign trail. As such, here is a look at the top 5 biggest foreign policy issues Obama and Romney are likely to contend in 2012:

1. China and the Pacific

A rising China has been a matter of concern for quite a while, but only recently has the U.S. declared its shift to Asia. Sixty percent of U.S. warships will be stationed in the Asia-Pacific, and analysts continue to debate about whether a stronger U.S. military presence in Asia will allow a more peaceful rise or exacerbate conflict.

Add to that the growing trade deficit with China, and worries about U.S. global competitiveness. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton has emphasized on many occasions, the need for strategic dialogue to mediate any tensions. In Republican debates so far, Romney has been critical of the Chinese regime. The “blame the foreigner” card can be effective in shoring up votes especially in many Republican states whose support for him has been mixed so far.

2. Drones and Counter-terrorism

Republicans are supposed to be the hardliners on national security. But Obama’s hands-on approach towards drone strikes and the success in taking out top terrorist targets is slowly challenging this perception. The Obama administration has chosen to justify this controversial policy using the sound legal analysis that reflects the president’s own background as a lawyer. On Apr 30, Obama’s counter-terrorism adviser defended the ethics and efficacy of the current drone strikes, arguing that they conformed to Just War principles.

To silence conservative critics who accuse him of being too moderate or not tough enough, Romney might seek to draw support on an issue Republicans have a reputation of being strong on. Romney might seek an even more hardline stance not just on drones, but the entire counter-terrorism policy. On the other hand, Romney could challenge the current drone policy, just to oppose a policy that has become a key policy in the current Democratic administration.

3. The Afghanistan-Pakistan region

Obama set in motion a plan for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced plans for a possible transition of power to Afghan Security Forces by 2014. Romney has “criticized” this policy, but his own stance remains to be seen.

Tied to this issue is Afghanistan’s mercurial neighbor, Pakistan. Over the course of Obama’s administration, the close ties with the Pakistani military have slowly eroded. Obama allegedly noted that “the cancer is in Pakistan,” in Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s account of the decision making process for the Afghanistan war. An underlying fear is Pakistan’s nuclear capacity, and whether Romney would deviate from the current trend of shifting away from an unreliable ally is still debatable.

4. Cyber

Recent leaks reveal that Obama gave the go-ahead for Stuxnet attacks against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. The program began under the Bush administration but the attacks increased under the current administration. A recent Flame virus that had infected the computers of Iranian officials was also discovered to be linked to Stuxnet.

The future of cyber policy is a political hot potato because regulating cyberspace involves the cooperation of regimes whose take on internet freedoms differs greatly from the America’s laissez faire approach. Chinese officials like to discuss “information security” rather than “cyber security,” as that term includes regulation of content that it deems inimical to its government. Countries like Iran and Syria have also been advocates of internet censorship. But it is also the fear of cyber attacks from hostile regimes, which can potentially be a great leveler of power that makes military superiority of any state less significant (as nuclear weapons did). Cyber policy therefore also involves the myriad of clashing interests between rising powers, hostile regimes, and the opportunity to espouse ideals of liberalism, freedom, and American values — which makes for a great political soundbyte.

5. Iran

It’s not so much the country as the bomb that it allegedly has. There has been talk about going to war with Iran, to eradicate the destructive capacities of the nuclear weapons Ahmadinejad has threatened to deploy against the U.S. But war has implications in a sluggish economy and a country still smarting from the effects of two wars launched under the previous administration. Calling for another war now would seem like political suicide.

On the other hand, history shows that wartime presidents always get re-elected, given that in uncertain times people look to a strong leader. It is also easy to play the “blame the foreigner” card for Iran, and use it as a diversionary method to distract the populace from more pressing domestic issues like unemployment and the economy. Both candidates will want to show their tough stance on this rogue regime, but whether or not it will escalate into further talk of war is an open question.