Brown And Warren Both Centrists On Foreign Policy Issues

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Two costly wars, the continued dread of terrorist attacks, talk of an Israeli strike against Iran, calls for intervention in Syria, economic tension with China — these are just some of the international issues looming over the country as it heads to this fall's election.

And they are issues that will demand the attention of whoever Massachusetts elects to the U.S. Senate.

But barring an overseas crisis, a so called "October surprise," foreign policy will play little if any role in the November elections. It rarely does, according to academics and campaign managers, even in presidential elections.

"The last time foreign policy played a decisive role in a U.S. presidential election was 1980," said Tufts University professor Jeffrey Taliaferro. That's when Iran was holding American hostages and after the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan.

In a U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, you'd have to go back to the Vietnam War to see foreign policy as a leading issue.

And both incumbent Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren's campaigns apparently consider it a minor issue in this race as well. Neither candidate jumped at the opportunity to lay out their positions for WBUR.

"The difference between Sen. Scott Brown and Elizabeth Warren in foreign policy is really one of shade of gray," said Taliaferro, who teaches politics and international relations. "They're both really running to the center and not saying things which are terribly out of the mainstream."

Warren and Brown may be black and white opposites on domestic policy, but they're foreign policy centrists, largely in sync with the centrist foreign policy of President Obama that's largely in line with the centrist policy of the first President Bush, says Guive Mirfendereski, a lecturer at Tufts' Fletcher School, Brandeis and Boston University.

On Syria 

"The ongoing killing of civilians in Syria is a tragedy and Assad has got to go," Warren says of the ongoing crisis in Syria.

Ditto Sen. Brown, who responded in writing that the U.S. must work with the international community to stop the violence and aid the opposition. Initially, he called for the same kind of intervention as in Libya, but then walked it back.

"Syria's air defense capabilities are much greater than those of Libya," Mirfendereski said.

Both Brown and Warren oppose committing U.S. troops to Syria.

On Afghanistan And Troop Withdrawal 

Warren and Brown do differ on their rear-view-window assessment of the war in Afghanistan, but have a similar stance on troop withdrawal in the road ahead. Brown, who supported Obama's troop surge, also supports the president's plan to withdraw the last troops by 2014. And Warren's position is similar.

"I believe we need to get out as quickly as possible, consistent with the safety of our troops," Warren said.

Mirfendereski says Warren's "as quickly as possible" will inevitably morph into the president's scheduled drawdown.

"I think she tried to say the same thing, just nuanced it by saying the word 'quickly' in order to appeal to certain constituencies in the Democratic party and independents who really want to get out," Mirfendereski said.

Iran And Israel 

There is a growing concern that Iran could be developing nuclear weapons. Which inevitably brings us to Israel and questions of American policy toward Israel. Israel has typically made candidates cautious in an election year, says Tufts professor Taliaferro.

"There's very little to be gained, and potentially much to be lost, by being too overtly critical of Israel, particularly in light of the Iranian nuclear issue," Taliaferro said.

Over the last week news reports indicate Israel might attack Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. election.

"First of all, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself. The threat from Iran is real," Brown said in a press conference Wednesday.

"A nuclear Iran would be a threat to the United States, to our allies, to the region, to the world," Warren said. "And right now the United States must take the necessary steps to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon."

Warren says we "shouldn't take anything off the table." Brown says "all options are on the table."

Warren says she's in line with Obama, whose stance has bipartisan support — that includes Brown. But Brown heats up the difference by calling Warren "dangerously naive."

"We don't want a nuanced approach like Professor Warren wants, that's for sure," Brown said.

What Brown criticizes as "nuanced" is what Warren says is a need for caution and deliberation, things she says didn't precede the war in Iraq.

Brown calls Warren's nuanced approach the biggest difference between them.

Warren's description of the biggest difference?

"I want the guy who figured out how to kill Osama bin Laden to stay on to become commander in chief," Warren said. "Scott Brown wants to get rid of him."

On foreign policy they are both cautious centrists — different shades of gray. Neither candidate is rocking the boat, especially during the campaign. And unless that "October surprise" arrives, their positions on foreign policy won't be making waves.

This program aired on August 16, 2012.

Headshot of David Boeri

David Boeri Senior Reporter
Now retired, David Boeri was a senior reporter at WBUR.



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