In the race for U.S. Senate, foreign policy issues are mostly overshadowed by the vast divide on domestic policy between Newark Mayor Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate in the special election, and Republican Steve Lonegan.
A month ago, when a possible U.S. air assault on Syria was being debated, it appeared foreign policy might play a larger role in next Wednesday’s election.
That seems a long time ago. With the Syria crisis resolved or at least postponed, the dominant issue is the shutdown of the federal government amid a Republican bid to defund the Affordable Care Act – another of the many points of contention between Booker and Lonegan.
Their two debates mostly focused on significant differences on domestic issues, including environmental regulations opposed by Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota, and gay marriage, which is supported by Booker. An especially contentious exchange on abortion rights, which Booker supports, went on for so long that closing statements in Wednesday’s second debate were scrapped.
On foreign affairs, by contrast, the differences and disagreements between the candidates, while noteworthy, are much less dramatic.
Both opposed a U.S. attack on Syria, though in the first debate last Friday, only Lonegan ruled out any reconsideration.
Lonegan and Booker, also in the first debate, scoffed at the notion of the U.S. as an international police force. Both expressed deep wariness about recent diplomatic outreaches to Iran.
Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, said after the first debate that foreign policy “was the one issue in which there seemed to be much more agreement than on domestic policy.”
Neither Booker nor Lonegan would qualify as an “hawk,” but Booker is more receptive to the deployment of U.S. forces.
Asked a Syria-inspired question in the first debate about “America’s role in the world,” Booker said the U.S. should be willing to combat genocide, while Lonegan countered that the military’s role is to “defend our borders and our trade routes.”
That drew a rebuttal from Booker: “We cannot, like Mr. Lonegan suggests, just stick our heads in the sand and protect our borders.”
“We have to be involved in the international community in a way that works with others to stop terrorism, other problems – famines to genocide — …that are going on in the world,” Booker said.
Lonegan said the U.S. should not “intervene in every single action every other country takes,” stating, “If we continue this sort of statist interventionist approach, America will be perpetually at war.”
President Obama called for missile strikes on Syria, prompted by the regime allegedly killing 1,400 of its citizens in a chemical weapons attack, prior to a Russian-brokered agreement last month in which Syria agreed to give up its stockpile by mid-2014.
Lonegan said he would not support “any act of war that is not voted on by Congress,” a commitment not made by Booker.
In the second debate Wednesday, asked about the raid by Navy SEALS on a militant group in Somalia linked to killing 67 people at a mall in Kenya, Lonegan indicated he would not have supported it while Booker did not state a position.
Lonegan, in an interview Monday, accused Booker of vagueness on foreign policy. He charged that Booker “waffled all over the place” on Syria, in not ruling out reversing his position while Lonegan’s opposition was ironclad.
Booker was not available for a post-debate interview on foreign policy.
His spokesman, Kevin Griffis, said in an email that, in regard to Syria, “Mayor Booker simply said he wouldn’t want to pass final judgment without access to all the facts, a trait most people value in a senator but one unimportant to Steve Lonegan.”
Lonegan, asked in the interview whether he considers himself an isolationist, said he supports having the U.S. “do our share” in combating genocide, for example, but as part of a broader coalition rather than taking on full responsibility.
“I am tired of the U.S. carrying the burden of everything. The U.S. should not have to carry the burden for the entire world,” Lonegan said.
Of Booker, Lonegan said Monday, “I think Cory Booker has very little depth of knowledge on foreign policy.
“He supports small interventions,” Lonegan said, adding, “Every small intervention leads to a big intervention.”
Griffis, asked for Booker’s biggest difference with Lonegan on foreign policy, stated, “Mayor Booker believes that America must remain engaged in the world, working to strengthen democracy and support people who share our values.”
“Ultimately, that will make us safer, help American businesses sell more of what they make overseas and improve lives around the world. Mr. Lonegan would have us retreat behind our borders,” Griffis said.
It’s not likely that either candidate would be a driving force in foreign policy discussions on Capitol Hill.
Harrison said a new senator would not be in a position to have much impact on foreign policy. That would be in contrast to New Jersey’s senior Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
It is also unlikely that foreign policy will have much of an impact on Wednesday’s outcome, a race in which Lonegan is polling closer than expected to Booker.
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, noted of foreign policy, “Usually it has little if any effect on how people vote” for Senate.
“I don’t really see why that would be likely to be any different this time,” Weingart said.
Both candidates, on their campaign websites, offer their views on a range of foreign policy issues.
Booker calls for boosting cyber security, asserting that New Jersey’s power plants, oil pipelines and water systems remain vulnerable to a terrorist attack.
Lonegan supports ending the surveillance of U.S. citizens via the National Security Agency, which he has made a central campaign issue.
Booker has been less vocal on that topic, but says on his website that “we failed as a nation to thoroughly debate and create public oversight before this highly-questionable data collection began.”
Lonegan opposes any United Nations treaties that would undercut U.S. sovereignty.
Booker casts environmentalism in a national security context in endorsing further development of clean energy sources. He asserts that the U.S. is sending billions of dollars overseas to obtain oil, which ends up aiding terrorist groups and hostile regimes.
Lonegan, in Monday’s interview, spoke of combating international piracy on the seas.
“The reality in today’s world is you always have to protect trade routes,” Lonegan said.
Asked about Iran during the first debate, both candidates expressed wariness.
The moderator set up the question by noting that Obama spoke by phone in September to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, in the first direct contact between the two nation’s leaders in more than 30 years. Obama has said Iran is a year or more away from producing a nuclear weapon, though Israel anticipates a quicker timeframe and has discouraged any dealings.
Asked if he could “trust” Iran, Booker said, “Yes, we should talk, but I am telling you, we should not trust.”
Lonegan’s response was similar, but in keeping with his style, much blunt.
“I will not support any county where the fundamentalist leadership teaches its children to wrap bombs around their waists and blow themselves up in the name of their beliefs,” Lonegan said.