Beyond Benghazi: Questions for the foreign policy debate


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All in all, this presidential race has featured little substantive discussion of the issue that has dominated American foreign policy for more than a decade: how the United States best protects itself against terrorism. And nowhere has the gap between our nation’s values and our actions been greater than in our counter-terror policies.

In the name of combating terrorism, the United States has made mistakes that have damaged our moral standing, our relationships with other countries, and our ability to back those fighting for freedom around the world. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to bring human rights and democracy activists from 27 countries to the White House. They told the president that the most important thing he could do to support them would be to reform the so-called war on terror; our government was providing cover to their oppressors every time we took an expedient, illegal short-cut.

With a view toward moving from a conversation about American exceptionalism to one about the ideals that make this country exceptional, here are a few questions that moderator Bob Schieffer should ask tonight as he sits down with the candidates in Florida.

For Governor Romney: Would you revoke the executive order banning torture?

On his second day in office, President Obama signed an order restricting interrogation tactics to those in the Army Field Manual. Recently in the New York Times, Charlie Savage reported that Romney advisors are urging him to “rescind and replace President Obama’s executive order” to allow “enhanced interrogation techniques against high-value detainees that are safe, legal and effective in generating intelligence to save American lives.” But “enhanced interrogation” isn’t safe, legal, or effective. It’s torture. Americans need to know if he plans to make it official policy again.

For President Obama: Do you still intend to close Gitmo? If so, how?

Last Thursday on the Daily Show, President Obama said he still would like to see the facility closed.  But this 2008 promise has gone unfulfilled not only because of opposition in Congress but also because of the President’s own missteps. He should have transferred more detainees out of Gitmo before Congress imposed restrictions and then vetoed bills that contained those restrictions. He should have also rejected military commissions and indefinite detention, the two cornerstones of Gitmo’s system of injustice. Most of all, he should have spent some of his considerable political capital to get it done. But that’s the past; does he have a plan to shut it down in a second term?

For Governor Romney: Would you try terrorism suspects in federal courts?

President Obama has continued to try at least some terrorism suspects in rights-respecting federal courts, where about 450 terrorists have been convicted in since 9/11. These trials have both set an example of justice before the world and denied terrorists the warrior’s martyrdom they seek. Meanwhile, more people have died in Gitmo (nine) than have been convicted (six) in its legally shaky military commissions. Would Governor Romney fulfill the desires of some in his party to end federal trials for terrorist suspects?

For President Obama: Why shouldn’t Americans know the criteria you use to decide that the U.S. government may kill terrorist suspects?

The Obama Administration has gone to court to try to keep hidden the details of its targeted killing program. But there is no greater power the government can claim than the power to kill a person without providing due process. Americans need to know the criteria for lethal targeting decisions, the process by which they’re made, and what mechanisms, if any, exist to provide accountability.

These questions just scratch the surface of this crucial issue, but scratching the surface would be more than the candidates have done so far. Call it a battle or a war or a struggle against terrorism, the issue is simply too important not to take center stage, at least for one night.

Massimino is president and CEO of Human Rights First.