Foreign policy not foreign to some local voters

Wade Spees/staff Joel Bateman, president of the Charleston Foreign Affairs Forum, takes notes during Monday's debate.

Not far into Monday night’s final presidential debate, Joel Bateman turned to his wife, Mary, and said, “These guys sound a lot alike.”

Bateman, a retired businessman, hoped to hear the candidates talk in depth about Iran, Syria, Israel, China, al-Qaida and Pakistan, and he got his wish, up to a point.

“If you could take them at their word, I did not detect what I think is significant difference in how they would approach virtually anything when it comes to foreign affairs,” he said.

Bateman is not your average voter. The Mount Pleasant resident serves as president of the Charleston Foreign Affairs Forum, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group whose members have a keen interest in what occurs abroad. Its 215 members include college professors, former foreign service officials and retired military and business leaders across the political spectrum.

Another member, Chuck Bensonhaver, a semiretired psychiatrist who lives on Johns Island, has seen foreign policy hit home.

He has worked at the Veterans Affairs clinic in Rock Hill, where he treated military men and women suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

He called both candidates “absolutely patriots” but counts himself as a supporter of President Barack Obama, partly because of the foreign policy experience he has gained during the last four years.

While he heard the candidates clash before about the White House’s initial comments on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, Bensonhaver said he thinks the bigger story there is how Obama’s intervention helped avert genocide there in the waning days of dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The candidates disagreed on the greatest threat facing America. Obama cited terrorists, while Mitt Romney cited the possibility of a nuclear Iran.

“He (Romney) may have hurt himself to say that Iran is our greatest foreign threat,” Bensonhaver said. “I don’t think Americans sense that at all.”

Alan Armstrong, a Vietnam veteran who later attended the U.S. Army War College, closely follows what goes on in the world now that his twin sons are serving in the Army and Marines.

A self-described moderate-right-of-center voter, Armstrong said he is leaning toward Romney. Armstrong said he is less interested in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi. He said it’s normal for fog to obscure details immediately after such an attack.

“I think it’s worth discussing tonight, but I think there are some bigger issues, such as Syria,” he said. “That is very, very important. It has the potential to spin out of control.”

He said neither candidate seemed to differ much on dealing with Syria, but he said Romney appeared more on target about the need to keep defense strong in light of future scenarios that could unfold.

Another forum member, Al Thibault of Mount Pleasant, who is retired from foreign service, said before the debate that he did not want to see too sharp a partisan divide.

And he essentially got his wish.

“One key dimension is what assessment foreign governments — just as much a key audience for tonight’s debate as the American people — will make of the debate,” he said late Monday. “I think they will be reassured (or in some cases frustrated) that there were no surprises in the stands taken by either Obama or Romney.

“Foreign governments almost always value continuity of U.S. policy and an absence of sharp deviations in policy. Nothing said tonight suggests that these are likely.”

While both Obama and Romney have generally agreed on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2014, there’s the question of America’s ongoing role there — an issue both candidates touched on only briefly.

“I assume they don’t want to get boxed into any particular position,” Thibault said.

Armstrong went one further: “They don’t want to tell American people what they might not want to hear.”

Bateman said while foreign policy is less political — it’s the area where politics are said to stop at the water’s edge — that’s only partly true.

“That’s true up to a point where individuals think someone is doing a bad job or someone is an unknown,” he said.

Bateman noted both candidates “were smart” to dodge a hypothetical question of Israel launching an attack on Iran, but members said they wished they had heard more — or any — talk about trade agreements, Cuba, Venezuela, Egypt’s new government and how the United States should discourage extremists.

Bateman also said the stakes were greater for Romney on Monday night simply because he has had less foreign policy experience and must grapple with “the unknown factor.”

“As long as you don’t stumble in Romney’s case, he probably will be all right,” he added.

Meanwhile, many forum members noted that while the topic was foreign affairs, both candidates at times steered their comments toward domestic issues such as jobs, education, energy and the like.

“If the economy were rocking along again, foreign policy would rise up very quickly,” Bateman said. “There are tons of things going on.”

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.