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Debating foreign policy

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James Carafano is director of the Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. Carafano, a nationally recognized expert on defense and homeland security, spoke to the Trib on the relevance of foreign policy issues during the presidential campaign's waning weeks.

Q: The next presidential debate will touch on foreign policy; the final debate will focus exclusively on it. What strategy do you see Mitt Romney employing as he goes head-to-head with President Obama on that topic?

A: I think it will be similar to the domestic debate in the sense the (candidates) represent very different points of view and in many instances are polar opposites.

The president's strategy has been heavy on engagement with Iran, China, Syria (and) until recently, Russia.

I think Romney's inclination is exactly the opposite: You show firmness and strength in your positions first, and then you say, “OK, if you're willing to accept where I stand, I'm willing to engage with you.” It's a completely different approach on foreign policy.

Q: How likely do you think Romney is to go after the president on Libya? (Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others were killed last month in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.)

A: I think we're going to have to wait and see what the facts on the ground are on the day of the debate. Who knows what the situation is going to be like in Libya (then)?

The U.S. could well do some strikes against (Libyan) terrorist targets. More information might come to light to show the (federal) government wasn't negligent. We just don't know.

Q: Do you think Romney will play up what many people perceive to be the president's relative indifference to Israel?

A: I'm sure he will. I mean, he's spent the entire campaign season saying his first foreign trip as president was going to be to Israel.

There's only one country in that part of the world the United States can depend on, and that's Israel.

(But) the president doesn't say Israel is not an important strategic ally, so I believe we can expect both candidates to say they're strong friends of Israel.

Q: Might then Romney accuse the president of merely paying lip service to Israel?

A: He could say that, and of course the president will deny it.

But here's the difference between Obama 2008 and Obama 2012: Obama 2008 was a foreign policy enigma. In 2012, he has a record to run on.

So in 2008, when he says, “I'm a strong friend of Israel,” people say, “OK, he says he's a strong friend of Israel.” He can say the same thing in 2012, but now people are going to have to weigh that (statement) against his record and see if they agree with him or not.

Q: John McCain has been quoted as saying that he believes Romney has the same foreign policy instincts as Ronald Reagan. Do you believe that's a valid comparison?

A: Inherently, at his core, Romney sounds like a guy that lives and breathes peace through strength. So in his core values, I think he is a classic Ronald Reagan type.

Q: How much of a game-changer do you think foreign policy issues will be in the election?

A: Remember, this is the national security guy that's been doing this for 30 years speaking. (The election) is going to be won or lost on domestic economic issues.

Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media (412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com).

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