The World from The Hill: Foreign policy takes back seat in midterm campaign

Foreign policy has played a noticeably subdued role on the campaign trail, despite myriad serious international issues that will probably face the next Congress.

It's a stark contrast to just two years ago when the Iraq and Afghanistan wars weighed heavier on voters' minds and candidates were scrutinized for their foreign-policy acumen.

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President Obama campaigned on a withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and reminded Americans of that pledge on Aug. 31 when he brought combat operations there to an end. Vowing to concentrate U.S. efforts on battling al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Obama implemented a surge — which drew criticism from the left wing in his party — and promised a drawdown of coalition forces beginning in July 2011.

The mission in Afghanistan is still fraught with uncertainty and reported clashes between military and administration leaders, and a drawdown might meet greater resistance in the next Congress. Republicans, while voicing hope for success in the region, have expressed concerns about revealing a timetable to the enemy while placing security onto the shoulders of a shaky central government in Kabul.

The dominating campaign messages in the midterm elections have focused on reflecting the stated concerns of voters, and in a New York Times/CBS News poll last month, just 3 percent rated the war to be a crucial issue facing the country. Sixty percent, meanwhile, picked the economy and jobs as the most pressing issues. A Pew survey earlier this month had 43 percent of respondents following stories about the economy closely, while just 18 percent closely followed the al Qaeda terror threat in Europe, and 11 percent followed the Mideast peace talks.

Those global issues that have cropped up in this midterm campaign cycle have a decidedly local flavor.

Before breaking for the campaign recess, the House Foreign Affairs Committee delayed the markup of a measure to lift travel restrictions to Cuba. In Florida, policy toward the communist island nation is very much on the lips of voters and candidates in sometimes heated rhetoric.

Republican David Rivera and Democrat Joe Garcia, who are running for the 25th congressional district in Florida being vacated by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R), both back the Cuba trade embargo and tourism ban, but Rivera came under fire for calling Garcia a henchman ("esbirro") of Fidel Castro in a Spanish-language interview.

"All of the allies of freedom and democracy in Cuba in particular ... are supporting my candidacy," Rivera defended his words in a heated televised debate earlier this month.

In the Senate race, Cuba has been branded as one of the only issues that candidates Marco Rubio (R), Gov. Charlie Crist (I) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) agree on, with all three supporting the continuation of the trade embargo as long as Cuba remains a communist regime.

On the other coast, no candidate stands a chance in California's 29th congressional district, which contains a large Armenian-American constituency, without addressing the campaign to have the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915 officially recognized as genocide. Blue Dog Democrat Adam Schiff, who has represented the district since 2001, went toe-to-toe with President Obama this Congress over the genocide recognition bill; Obama vowed on the presidential campaign trail to recognize the killings as genocide but has not done so under pressure of damaged relations with Turkey. Schiff's latest genocide bill passed the Foreign Affairs Committee in March by 23-22, causing a minor meltdown in relations between Washington and Ankara.

Schiff's Republican challenger John Colbert, in addition to outlining jobs and debt reduction platforms on his campaign website, devotes a section to the genocide debate. "Our nation must take a firm stance against genocide and must help recognize and preserve the history of these terrible acts," Colbert says, vowing to fight for genocide recognition.

In Arizona, vulnerable Democrats have seized on constituents' concerns about drug violence in Mexico spilling over into the United States. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick, Harry Mitchell and Gabrielle Giffords have denounced Obama for not pushing more specific action to secure the southern border.

“The cartels have shown an increasing level of violence and brutality," Kirkpatrick said over the summer. "We should act now, before that violence crosses our borders, instead of waiting for it to come to us.”

Not only is border security highlighted on her campaign website, but she pans the federal government's lawsuit against Arizona's tough immigration law as "an empty, unproductive response to a challenge that needs a serious, effective resolution."

And reaching from Washington to Turtle Bay, one of the unifying themes of Tea Party candidates has been a desire to pull back from the United Nations even if members of the movement disagree widely on U.S. interventionism policies around the world. Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller (R) has called to slash funding for the U.N., Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle (R) has questioned the constitutionality of U.N. membership, and Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul (R) says on his website, "America is often subservient to foreign bodies such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, World Trade Organization (WTO), and the United Nations (UN). ... America can engage the world in free trade, develop lucrative commercial relationships with other nations, and defend its national interests without funding or joining international organizations."

The greatest global issue to surface in widespread campaigning appears to be China's might, wrapped into fears of a stagnant economic recovery and ambitions of Democratic lawmakers hoping to push the Chinese currency manipulation bill through in the lame-duck session. Accusing China of costing Pennsylvania jobs in a recent Senate debate, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) furthered the theme in a TV ad that said Republican opponent Pat Toomey "ought to run for Senate in China."

The next Congress, though, is likely to find itself facing varied, challenging foreign-policy questions.

Just Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced $2 billion more directed toward Pakistan for security operations. It would need congressional approval and be on top of the $7.5 billion over five years already approved by lawmakers for the country tasked with fighting al Qaeda on its soil. But while Washington is trying to press Islambad to root out extremists in North Waziristan, Pakistan's foreign minister made clear Sunday that his country has its "own priorities" and "own sense of timing," fresh aid or not.

And what would be the next step against Iran and its nuclear program, for instance, after sanctions and last-ditch administration diplomatic efforts fail and tensions with Tehran keep increasing? What will come in terms of North Korea's nuclear drive as young Kim Jong-un, infamous dictator Kim Jong-il's youngest son, who was reportedly picked to succeed his ailing dad because he's "exactly like his father," takes the reins?

With Obama's first push at peace between Israel and the Palestinians teetering on the edge of collapse, how will the new Congress advocate for a brokered solution? Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have pressed Obama to be fair toward Israel in negotiations, and more Republicans in Congress will only increase that pressure on the president.

In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has already served two consecutive terms as president, has repeatedly hinted at a return to his old job in March 2012 presidential elections, which would continue a dynasty that has raised concerns on Capitol Hill about the roll-back of freedom and human rights while Moscow inks arms and nuclear deals with Iran and Venezuela. Right before recess, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who helms the Helsinki Commission, introduced a bill calling for a visa ban and asset freeze for 60 Russian officials implicated in the 2009 death of an anti-corruption lawyer.

Former House Speaker Tip O'Neill said "all politics is local," and in a year dominated by sluggish recession recovery and fears about households staying afloat, this appears especially true as those foreign-policy issues that do manage to make it on the radar screen have decidedly local ties.