PENTAGON — With much of the Middle East in turmoil, the possibility of a war over Iran’s nuclear program, and a growing al-Qaida threat in Africa, the global security challenges facing the U.S. president in the next four years are huge. President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, are presenting different approaches in the final days before Americans go to the polls.
For Obama, there have been security triumphs.
"We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al Qaida's core leadership has been decimated,” said Obama.
But scenes of continuing violence in Iraq, in Syria, and in Libya - where a militant attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador - are reminders the region may be just as unstable as before.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney points to what he says is an Obama foreign policy that is unraveling and threatening the safety and security of Americans.
“I congratulate him on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida. But we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” said Romney.
Romney calls for a strong military as a deterrent and is critical of Obama’s plan, which calls for downsizing navy ships, cutting the number of ground troops, and making the military more reliant on special forces, covert operations, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Under Obama, the number of killings of militants by drone strikes has increased substantially, and his administration has focused on training and equipping the militaries of other nations to carry out operations, rather than sending in U.S. troops
“We're now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way, making sure that Afghans take responsibility for their own security. And that allows us also to rebuild alliances and make friends around the world to combat future threats,” said Obama.
Romney - like Obama - has shied away from committing the U.S. to direct involvement in another war.
“The candidates do talk a great deal, but they don’t necessarily have huge differences between them because both men are aware the American public is tired of major overseas interventions,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
In addition to using a strong military to deter aggression from states like Iran and fight the rise of radical Islam, Romney proposes using foreign aid to pressure Egypt to promote democracy and maintain peace with Israel, and says he wants to help the Syrian opposition. He calls for economic development, promoting education, gender equality, and rule of law in countries that are seeing a militants surge.
“We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism which is - it's certainly not on the run. It's certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries,” said Romney.
Among the countries where al-Qaida affiliates are expanding their bases is the West African nation of Mali. Although the candidates mentioned Mali in the final debate, analysts do not see either Obama or Romney having much of an Africa agenda.
“On Africa, we have to say that Romney and Obama have both avoided the subject. So, of the various topics one might discuss, in a sense that’s unfortunately the simplest because there really hasn’t been any discussion,” said O'Hanlon.
The issue of security in Europe has not been a major topic in this presidential campaign. The two men want members of the NATO alliance to start contributing more manpower and equipment that the U.S. has shouldered traditionally. They differ on a missile defense strategy toward Russia - with Obama favoring a more flexible policy toward Moscow.
Regardless of who wins the election, the next four years will present as many, if not more, challenges for the president of the United States.