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Ask the 2008 presidential candidates better foreign-policy questions

Why focus only on the Middle East?

By Clinton Whitehurst / June 14, 2007



Clemson, S.C.

When it comes to foreign policy, the 2008 presidential candidates have focused almost exclusively on the Middle East. Given the public debate about America's engagement in Iraq, that's understandable. But such myopia is also deeply regrettable. There's another world out there besides the Middle East, one with major problems and flash points that cannot be ignored by the public and a future US president.

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It's imperative that voters and the media ask all of the candidates tough questions about issues other than the ones they already ask about the Middle East. Some of the important ones include these:

How should the United States (1) Maintain a balance of power in East Asia, (2) Respond if China tests a second anti-satellite weapon, (3) Respond to a Chinese military action against Taiwan?

If China does act against Taiwan, whoever becomes the next US president will have to respond in a matter of hours – not days – as to whether the US honors the Taiwan Relations Act and whether it becomes militarily involved in the conflict.

Looking elsewhere, we should also ask candidates how they intend to ensure that a politically divided Ukraine continues toward integration with Europe and not move closer to Russia. How should the United States respond to an increasingly authoritarian Russia, remembering that it has the second-largest oil reserves in the world, that Siberia is a treasure trove of minerals yet to be exploited, and that Russia is a military superpower? How should the US respond if Russia covertly threatens Poland for allowing a potential American anti-ballistic missile defense system on its territory?

Should a conflict arise between Kosovo and Serbia – which could involve Russia – where stands the United States?

And what about NATO? Should the US insist on a greater European contribution in terms of personnel and funding? The same question could be asked about the United Nations.

What should be America's policy toward India, a nation with the second-largest population in the world, a fast-growing economy, and a military with an increasing capability, all the time remembering its contentious and continuing border dispute with Pakistan, an American ally in the fight against the Taliban?

If North Korea reneges on its promise to give up its nuclear-weapons program, should the US encourage Japan to develop nuclear weapons? Should the United States continue a policy of downsizing the number of its troops in South Korea while, at the same time, South Korea is considering significant decreases in its active and reserve forces? Both nations insist the new force structure will be more capable than the present one. Will it?

Other areas of the world present their own share of tough questions. In the Western hemisphere, for example, should the United States lift its embargo against Cuba? Would such a move enhance America's image in Central and South America, or would it be seen as a sign of weakness? How should the US respond to aggressively populist/leftist movements such as the one in Venezuela? And will the US continue to spend billions to fight the drug trade in Colombia?

Those are just some of the critical issues that the next president must confront.

Some observers may claim that presidents today don't need to know such complexities because the White House has an abundance of experts on hand to advise the president on every possible foreign-policy scenario. That excuse, however, misunderstands the nature of real leadership. The commander in chief should have a basic understanding of all major foreign-policy issues, and then rely on advisers to discuss details and determine options. As has been frequently noted, American presidents can find themselves in deep trouble when they depend only on advisers with respect to unfamiliar problems and issues.

As long as the foreign-policy questions on the campaign trail – whether at televised debates or at diners in Iowa – don't extend beyond the Iraq war, the candidates themselves won't be inclined to discuss many of the other critical global issues that confront America.

That's why the media, the blogs, and the voters must challenge the candidates with non-Middle East foreign-policy questions. Imagine the expression on a candidate's face if he/she were asked, "What is your position with respect to the United States establishing air bases and stationing personnel in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan?" A follow-up questions might be, "And what was the original rationale for the bases?"

The motivation here isn't to stump the candidates and make them look foolish. Rather, it's an effort born out of a desire to have better-informed presidential candidates and a better-informed public.

Clinton Whitehurst is a senior fellow at The Strom Thurmond Institute of Government and Public Affairs at Clemson University.

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