Foreign policy and national security issues have largely taken a backseat to economic concerns in the hard-fought and expensive US Senate race in Massachusetts, and barring a monumental international event, that dynamic is unlikely to change in the final weeks of the campaign.
But with continued instability in the Middle East and other global challenges, the positions of Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren may well come into sharper focus. Both will be asked to provide voters with a sense of how — as a US senator for the next six years — they would view America's role in the world and vote on key questions from national defense and trade policy.
The candidates' written responses to a series of questions on foreign affairs posed by The Associated Press reveal contrasts both stark and subtle, yet also some striking similarities in approach.
On the threat posed by Iran, both Brown and Warren indicated all options up to and including military action must be considered if diplomacy and sanctions fail to end the regime's pursuit of nuclear capability. Calling Iran the "most serious threat to world peace and stability," Brown criticized Warren's use during the campaign's first televised debate of the word "nuanced" to describe the preferred U.S. approach.
"President Obama attempted a more nuanced approach to Iran early in his term, and he quickly discovered it didn't work," Brown said.
Diplomacy and sanctions had merely slowed Iran's nuclear program and bought some time, he added, and the administration now needed to apply "severe pressure" on Iran's government and economy.
Warren said she supported Obama's strategy for preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
"We have the toughest sanctions we have ever had against Iran, and I will work to make them even tougher," she said.
The candidates ended their response on Iran with similar language: Brown said the "US must keep every option on the table;" Warren said she "wouldn't take any options off the table," while also cautioning that "we must not rush to war."
Commenting on another Middle East hotspot, both declared that Syrian President Bashir Assad must go, but they differed on how the US should respond to the government's violent crackdown on dissidents.
"It is appropriate to identify moderate elements within the opposition and provide them with weapons so they can fight back against Assad and the Syrian army," Brown said. The senator made clear he did not, at this time, support sending in US ground troops or imposing a no-fly zone.
"Options such as providing lethal support such as weapons, establishing humanitarian zones, or setting up a no-fly zone must be carefully considered," Warren said. "Because lethal assistance can have complex and unintended consequences, we should not act unless we are confident that we can do more good than harm and that we have a clear plan and achievable goals."
Neither Brown nor Warren offered a specific opinion on Obama's timetable for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Brown said he was less concerned about the precise timing as with the need to defeat the enemy and place Afghan forces in position to assume control of the country's security.
Warren said the US should leave Afghanistan as "quickly as possible," while ensuring the safety of troops, so that the $2 billion spent weekly on the war can be used for domestic needs.
The nation's budget woes and the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to renew pressure on Congress to rein in military spending. Here, both candidates advocated a smart approach to any defense reductions, with Warren opposing "across-the-board" cuts and Brown warning that defense programs should not be trimmed indiscriminately.
The Republican, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he backed the panel's $634.4 billion defense authorization while also supporting the Pentagon's goal of finding $500 million in savings. Warren did not cite a savings target, but said the ending of the wars could permit downsizing of the US Army. She also called for greater investment in cybersecurity.