Senator Scott Brown wants to arm some of the rebels battling Syria’s brutal dictator, a step his challenger, Elizabeth Warren, is not ready to embrace. Warren wants to accelerate the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan while Brown wants to stick to President Obama’s timeline. Both candidates support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but Brown is adamant that Jerusalem be the undivided capital of Israel, a condition past administrations have left open to negotiation.
Brown, a Republican, and Warren, a Democrat, have barely mentioned foreign policy on the campaign stump. But in written responses to questions from the Globe about Syria, Russia, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and other areas, Brown and Warren provided a broader picture of their views on some of the thorniest foreign policy questions facing the United States. The winning candidate will, as a US senator, be in a position to help shape policy and act on treaties and declarations of war.
The candidates’ responses revealed several key areas of disagreement, and Brown’s answers were striking for the way he distanced himself from Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s views and aligned himself with President Obama. Brown has also been distancing himself from Romney on domestic issues, reflecting the challenge he faces as a Republican running in a traditionally Democratic state.
Brown and Warren agreed, perhaps to a surprising extent, on many areas, and their responses often restated longstanding American foreign policy rather than offer their own policy prescriptions. Their caution suggested they do not see any political advantage in staking out bold stances on foreign policy at a time when voters are more focused on economic issues.
Brown, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, was at times more substantive in his answers than Warren, a foreign policy neophyte.
But “neither is taking crazy positions,” said Leslie H. Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations who reviewed the responses from Brown and Warren. Both candidates embrace “pretty much centrist and White House policies.”
One of the key areas of disagreement between Brown and Warren was over Syria, which is in the throes of a bloody civil war that began 17 months ago when President Bashar Assad cracked down on protesters.
Since then, street battles and air attacks have left an estimated 27,000 dead and provoked a humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands of civilians. Brown said he wants to go beyond the nonmilitary and humanitarian aid the Obama administration is currently providing the rebels.
“I also believe it is appropriate to identify moderate elements within the opposition and provide them with weapons so they can fight back against Assad and the Syrian army,” Brown wrote.
“With so many innocent Syrians being slaughtered every day, we should do what we can to level the playing field,” he wrote. “However, I do not at this time support sending in US ground forces or the imposition of a no-fly zone.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice have also urged the United States to arm moderate rebels. Many foreign policy specialists say the idea is good in theory, but has not been feasible because no one knows who those moderates are.
“Who can be against helping the good guys, and at no cost to ourselves?” said Michael Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy Program at Johns Hopkins University. “The question is, can we identify the good guys, and avoid the cost and, even if we can, is it going to be of any help?”
Warren said she supports nonmilitary aid to the rebels but hedged on arming them and instituting a no-fly zone, saying they “must be carefully considered.”
“We cannot take such action without a clear sense of what we are getting into and what we need to do to succeed,” she wrote. “Because lethal assistance can have complex and unintended consequences, we should not act unless we are confident that we can do more good than harm and that we have a clear plan and achievable goals.”
Another area of disagreement between Brown and Warren centers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While both said they support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, Brown said a two-state solution must affirm “Jerusalem as the undivided capital of the state of Israel,” among other conditions.
An undivided Jerusalem enjoys support among many elected officials and influential voices in the Jewish community. But past administrations, both Republican and Democratic, have left Jerusalem’s status open to negotiation, said Gelb.
“We favor Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but we don’t say all of Jerusalem,” Gelb said. He said the issue of whether Jerusalem should be undivided “would be worked out in a final settlement. That’s the reality.”
Warren offered a more general answer, with no outlines of an agreement, and, like Brown, emphasized that Israel must remain an ally.
“The role of US legislators is to make it clear that the United States will support those who support peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians,” she wrote, adding that “I do not believe that a lasting peace can be imposed from the outside.”
Brown and Warren are also at odds over Obama’s timeline for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Brown, a longtime National Guard member, backs that deadline.
“I’m concerned less with the precise pace of the withdrawal in Afghanistan than I am with doing it responsibly, defeating the enemy, rooting out corruption, and improving the Afghan military and police forces so that we can leave Afghanistan in a better position than when we arrived,” he wrote.
Warren said she wants a withdrawal “as quickly as possible, consistent with the safety of our troops.”
“We need to transition to Afghan control because, ultimately, it is the Afghans who must take responsibility for their own future,” she wrote.
A quicker pullout is popular with many Democrats and war-weary voters. But “the risk there is the Afghans aren’t ready to take over,” Gelb said.
Asked about Romney’s declaration that Russia is “our number one geopolitical foe,” Brown said he disagrees with that assessment. He said he is concerned, however, that Russia is not doing enough to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Warren said she, too, disagrees with Romney’s view of Russia and indicated she does not consider the country either friend or foe. She said the United States must work with Russia to pressure Iran, Syria, and North Korea, and “stand up vigorously” when Russia tramples its citizens’ rights.
“In short, we have interests, and they have interests,” she wrote. “We work together where we can, and we pursue a separate course where it makes sense for us.”
Asked about another Romney argument, that Obama conducted an “apology tour” early in his term that projected a weak image overseas, Brown made clear he does not share that view.
“I’ll let the pundits characterize how the president’s ‘tone’ is perceived abroad,” Brown wrote. “President Obama has had some notable successes in his foreign policy, including the battle against terrorism around the world.”
Warren bashed Romney’s line about an “apology tour.”
“Nothing like that ever happened, and Republicans should be called out for making false claims,” she wrote. “President Obama has taken a tough, smart, and pragmatic approach to foreign policy that has not only gotten results but also repaired our image and leadership around the world.”
globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.