Presidential Debate 2012: 5 Reasons Foreign Policy Matters in the 2012 Election

As President Obama and Mitt Romney talk foreign policy during Monday's debate, voters must understand why foreign policy is so vital to U.S. interests.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

As the 2012 presidential campaign drags on, the American people have made it clear that the economy and jobs are their most important issues by a wide margin. In fact, 62% of respondents to a recent poll by CBS and The New York Times said so. Other issues such as the federal budget deficit (11%), health care (9%) and same sex marriage (7%) don’t even come close to touching the economy’s importance.

Then there’s the bottom of the list. Pathetically, only 4% of respondents claimed that foreign policy was their most important issue. Given the fact that most Americans couldn’t care less about foreign policy, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. American citizens are famous in their lack of knowledge about the world around them, as was proven when at the height of the Iraq war in 2006 two-thirds of Americans aged 18-24 couldn’t find Iraq on a map. 

Not that foreign policy is all people should care about, but the woeful inadequacy of the general population’s knowledge of foreign affairs manifests itself in dangerous ways, scariest of which is apathy to what happens overseas because it’s “too complicated,” as I have heard time and time again.

However, foreign policy should always be one of the main issues that determine not only an election, but also how voters identify with their own country and their view of the world beyond our borders. To convince you, here are five reasons why foreign policy is just too damn important to ignore: 

1. It’s the Economy, Stupid!

Remember how we fought that god-awful war in Iraq, and now have a $15.5 trillion national debt? Well you can safely say that almost a third of that is solely attributable to that one campaign. Material costs aside, the long-term price tag will continue to mount as veterans are treated for PTSD and other traumas suffered, as well as the fact that taxes were actually cut at the same time we went to war. Needless to say, had the American people been more informed about foreign policy, the public might have stymied the rush to Iraq. As some policy makers now look to Iran and Syria with a hawkish glare, voters must realize the devastating costs another war may bring.

2. Separating Rhetoric From Fact

Some policymakers will tell you with seemingly convincing arguments that Iran is a threat to the United States, armed intervention must happen in Syria, and the war in Afghanistan cannot be given a timetable. They will explain that intervention in Syria is a moral issue to stop the spread of violence against innocent people, attacking Iran is vital to national security, and that Afghanistan can’t simply be given up on, lest we invite terrorism to flourish yet again. However, intervening in Syria will ignite a terrifying conflagration amongst world powers, Iran poses literally no threat to U.S. existence, and attaching ourselves to Afghanistan indefinitely will come with an unfathomable price tag. Just because someone’s title starts with “Senior Fellow” or “Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense,” doesn’t mean they are immune to their own personal convictions. As an American citizen you have a duty to question your leaders, and we’ll all be better off for it. 

3. Moral Obligation

Why does Israel, ranking 17thout of 187 countries in the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index - a measure of the life expectancy, literacy, educational attainment, and GDP per capita of a country - receive more foreign aid from the U.S. than any other nation? Why does the U.S. rarely intervene in Africa, but at the drop of a hat in the Middle East? Why does Big Oil hold more clout than many of our elected leaders? All of these questions should be on your mind as a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth. U.S. dollars have been used to help continue settlement efforts in the West Bank while children in Africa die of easily treatable diseases. Making an educated decision when determining your moral stance on the issues helps democracy thrive both at home and abroad.

4. American Exceptional

Contrary to what you may have been told, being American does not make you better. Normally the quickest way to this realization is through travel abroad, but Americans do far too little of this. In fact, only about 1 in 3 Americans even own a passport. Some prominent academics have shown that America is what you would call an “insular” state, meaning that it is flanked on two sides by massive bodies of water, which act as natural deterrents to aggression, and that none of its neighbors represent even a latent threat. This could explain the fact that Americans feel safe, and therefore worry little about the world beyond. Yes, we suffered on 9/11, but have not learned the lesson that fateful event should have taught us: that hubris carries consequences. If American voters were more in tune with the world beyond their borders, they would not only increase their own security, but also begin to understand the plight of the third world and that cultural differences are not hierarchical.

5. Competition

As unsettling as it may be, some foreign economies are growing at a pace that will surpass U.S. growth rates in the near future, especially if this is correct. If the U.S. does not have a vibrant and well-adjusted population that understands how to navigate these issues and adapt to a dynamic world economy, it will surely lose. While part of this comes with a degree in economics, the other part comes with one in international relations, or at least rigorous study of foreign issues. Understanding how the global marketplace works is impossible without understanding cultural norms, and as it stands, the U.S. has some serious catching up to do.

For live coverage of the presidential foreign policy debate on Monday, including real-time analysis and coverage, see here.

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Joseph Sarkisian

Joseph graduated with a Master of Science in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston and was an intern at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, DC. He completed his BA at Arizona State University in political science as well as studied Arabic language, terrorism/counterterrorism, and religion. Joseph also lived in Egypt where he studied Arabic at the American University in Cairo in 2007. Joseph was the Secretary of the Executive Committee for the University of Massachusetts Graduate Student Government, a teaching assistant in his department, and teaches a class on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. His main areas of interest are the Af/Pak region, Iran, Syria, and other current foreign policy issues.

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