Politics

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In the 2012 presidential race, the economy has been the dominant issue. But in the past several days, both the Republican candidates and President Obama have focused on foreign policy; the president, on a trip around the Asia Pacific region and GOP White House hopefuls in weekend debate.

NPR's Scott Horsley gives us a sense of where the fault lines lie.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Less than 48 hours after taking office, President Obama signed an executive order outlawing harsh interrogation tactics such as waterboarding. In their debate this weekend, several Republicans took issue with that move, including Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachman.

If I were president, I would be willing to use waterboarding. I think it was very effective. It gained information for our country. And I...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Businessman Herman Cain also endorsed waterboarding. And while former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was not asked about it Saturday night, a spokesman says Romney stands by the position he took in a debate four years ago, when he refused to rule out waterboarding.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Is waterboarding torture?

As a presidential candidate, I don't think it's wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Let me just say this. They're wrong.

HORSLEY: Speaking at a news conference in Hawaii last night, Mr. Obama said putting a stop to waterboarding was the right thing to do.

OBAMA: That's not who we are. That's not how we operate. We don't need it in order to prosecute the war on terrorism.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama can point to progress in that effort, including the death of Osama bin Laden. And the president earns higher marks for foreign policy than he does for his handling of the economy. Romney tried to attack on both fronts, saying he would take a tougher stance against China for keeping its currency artificially low.

MITT ROMNEY: We can't just sit back and let China run all over us. People say, well, you'll start a trade war. There's one going on right now, folks. They're stealing our jobs, and we're going to stand up to China.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

HORSLEY: Romney's line against China is tougher than some of his fellow Republicans. Mr. Obama, who met privately with the Chinese president this weekend, avoids Romney's hard-line tactics but agrees with the need for China's currency to appreciate more quickly.

OBAMA: The problem is is that you've got a bunch of export producers in China who like the system as it is. And, you know, making changes are difficult for them politically. I get it. But the United States and other countries, I think understandably, feel that enough's enough.

HORSLEY: The Republicans directed their toughest language this weekend at Iran. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency last week once again shined a spotlight on that country's apparent effort to develop nuclear weapons. Romney says Mr. Obama has allowed that to happen.

ROMNEY: This is, of course, President Obama's greatest failing from a foreign policy standpoint.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama insists the U.S. and its allies have made steady and determined progress against Iran's nuclear program. And while efforts to build international pressure have not yet stopped Iran, Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says they have left that country increasingly isolated.

JON ALTERMAN: The broad international front is partly because the Obama administration gave the Iranians an opportunity to engage, and the Iranians walked away from that opportunity.

HORSLEY: Some Republicans called for covert operations in Iran or teaming up with Israel in a military strike. While Mr. Obama has not gone that far, Stuart Eizenstat, who oversaw sanctions in the Clinton Treasury Department, said the president's policies towards Iran have been have tough, sound and surprisingly bipartisan.

STUART EIZENSTAT: I think while the presidential candidates try to find some difference, there really has not been very much difference, and nor do I think there would be if a Republican president were faced with these same choices.

HORSLEY: GOP candidates will have another chance to spell out their preferred foreign policies when they debate in Washington next week. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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