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Election 2012: The National Security Agenda

On Wednesday, September 19,  the American Enterprise Institute, the Center for a New American Security, and the New America Foundation sponsored a debate between top-level surrogates of the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns. New America NYC intern Karam Sethi reports on the debate highlights below:  

The last two weeks of violent protests at American embassies across the world in response to an anti-Islam video shone a spotlight on the importance of national security policy in the 2012 election – and prodded both candidates to clarify their foreign policy and defense positions. But the candidates can only convey so much in sound bites, and the first real presidential debate is still two weeks away.  

Enter the latest event in New America’s national security election 2012 series co-sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for a New America Security.  At the September 19th event, presidential campaign surrogates and national security specialists convened at Arizona State University to debate the future of American foreign policy – and poke holes in the opposing candidates' agenda. Janine Davidson represented the Obama campaign and Dov S. Zakheim stood in for Romney’s team. Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security, and Peter Bergen of New America Foundation moderated the spirited conversation that illuminated sometimes surprising disagreements between the two.  

Right out of the gate, Davidson and Zakheim reiterated the candidates’ opposing views on American foreign policy; Obama believes in soft foreign policy dominated by diplomacy and Romney believes in realpolitik, a foreign policy dictated by military strength.

Bergen asked both representatives, about their candidates’ plans to pull the last troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Davidson assured the crowd that Obama would stick to his 2014 pull out plan, but emphasized that a contingent of forces will stay in an advisory role.  In contrast, Romney may not pull out combat troops by 2014 and believes enemies of the U.S. want nothing more than to regain power in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal.  “Peace through strength” as Zakheim calls it, can only succeed with a strong military presence abroad.  

The motto isn’t reflected in the president’s policy toward Iran, Zakheim argued.  Sure, President Obama has slapped hard sanctions on the Islamic Republic, prompting Ahmadinejad to grasp for new allies.  But the administration isn’t acting with enough strength or expediency.  

“Yes, let’s wait 25 years for sanctions to work,” Zakheim said sarcastically, insinuating that the Romney campaign would be willing to start a war if Iran keeps enriching its uranium.  He believes Iran has already passed the supposed “red line” by continuing its enrichment program, but offered only vague suggestions on how the current president should change his tactics.  Davidson argued that Obama’s plan may take time, but that time will avoid a catastrophic war.  Attacking nuclear facilities on the ground will “embolden Iran” and will only lead its leaders to feel as if they need nuclear capabilities, she contended.  

Another sticking point for Zakheim; Obama’s defense cuts.  He blamed the president for America’s decreased presence in Southeast Asia and the Middle East.  The cuts, he charged, are crippling our military, making our “stick” smaller and increasing our vulnerability to attacks at home and abroad.  Davidson countered by criticizing Zakheim’s 20th century rhetoric.  He argues a larger naval presence is needed to support South Korea against the North while she contends we have a sufficient presence along the DMZ and the defense cuts are not taking troops away from South Korea.  Our fiscal crisis at home demands budget cuts across the board, but it’s critical that we not equate our national security with the defense budget, she suggested.  

And it's critical we not forget our common ground. “The world needs to know we’re all Americans and we care about our national interests,” said Zakheim at the end of the dialogue.

-Karam Sethi

About the Series:

This fall's presidential election comes at a critical moment for the United States and the world. The demands for U.S. leadership are substantial--particularly in the dynamic Middle East and Asia-Pacific--yet fiscal challenges are forcing reductions in defense spending, sparking new thinking about American engagement with the world. In this important election season, many Americans will look to the next U.S. president to repair the economy, but he will nonetheless inherit complicated military and diplomatic engagements and govern as commander-in-chief of the globe's most powerful nation. As a result, the discussion of national security issues must take a central role in the 2012 presidential election.

This event is the fifth in a series of campaign-season seminars on the critical issues of U.S. foreign and defense policy, sponsored by AEI, the Center for a New American Security and the New America Foundation.  


Introductory Remarks
Michael Crow
President, Arizona State University

Featured Speakers
Janine Davidson 
Advisor on National Security Issues, Obama Campaign

Dov S. Zakheim
Special Adviser on Foreign Policy and National Security, Romney campaign

Thomas Donnelly
Resident Fellow and Co-Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, American Enterprise Institute

Richard Fontaine
President, Center for a New American Security

Peter Bergen
Director, National Security Studies Program
New America Foundation

Event Time and Location

Wednesday, September 19, 2012 - 6:00pm - 7:30pm
Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building IV
Arizona State University 781 E. Terrace Rd.
Tempe, AZ 85287

Event Photos

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A range of photos from this event are available on Flickr. Click on the icon at left to view or download the photos.