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nicholas burns

Murders in Libya point to need for wise leaders in US

A room in the gutted US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Ibrahim Alaguri/Associated Press

A room in the gutted US consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

YESTERDAY’S TRAGIC murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other American diplomats in Libya illustrates the ever-present dangers for Americans in the volatile Middle East. Thousands of US diplomats like Stevens are on point for us all over the world, and they make an enormous contribution to our national security. But this tragedy also points to the need for capable, experienced, and wise people at the top of our government when crises test the mettle of our leaders. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both made strong and determined statements in response to the attack on our diplomats, focusing on our unequivocal opposition to terrorism and fanatacism in the Middle East.

In contrast, GOP candidate Mitt Romney accused the administration of showing sympathy to terrorists and apologizing for their actions. By making these completely inaccurate charges, Romney injected the politics of the presidential race into a complex drama half a world away on a day when all Americans should have been rallying around our government and its diplomats in the Middle East.

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Crises often reveal the true nature and also the limitations of our leaders. Romney’s statements, made with incomplete understanding of the facts on the ground, represent the worst of our sound-bite-driven politics. He should have issued a strong statement of support for our diplomats in the fight against terrorism and refrained from commenting on what he could not understand sitting outside the government as our two diplomatic outposts were being attacked. Instead, he made an already bad situation even worse. In fact, his statements were so reckless and irresponsible that it prompts the inevitable question: What kind of commander-in-chief would he be?

Romney’s actions this week, coupled with his recent lackluster foreign trip, raise another important issue for the campaign. For the first time since LBJ trounced Barry Goldwater nearly half a century ago, it is the Democrats, not the Republicans, who are making the more persuasive case that they can best defend the country in a hostile world. In Charlotte, President Obama, Senator John Kerry, and nearly every other speaker reminded us that Obama had taken down Osama bin Laden, prosecuted a relentless war against terrorists, and brought our troops home from Iraq. In Tampa, Romney barely discussed foreign policy and, inexplicably, failed even to mention Afghanistan, where 74,400 American troops are still fighting in the longest war in our history.

Romney supporters argue there is only one real issue in the campaign — the economy. But a real foreign policy debate is emerging, to the surprise of many, and the Republicans are losing it. Romney’s real problem is his slim national security credentials compared with Obama’s much more substantial and impressive record. As Americans watch these events unfold, they clearly realize that foreign policy matters. In a globalized world, our fortunes are linked as never before with more than 7 billion people in 193 nation states. Our ability to export and protect jobs at home, or to take advantage of global opportunities in areas where we are strong — financial services, biotechnology, and agriculture, to name three — all depend on our ability to compete and lead with purpose, strength, and imagination. The United States is, still by a long mile, the strongest power, with enormous global influence. It is vital that we have leaders who can preserve our power and leadership in the world.

I served as a career diplomat for presidents of both parties, from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. The qualities needed for effective international leadership in the Oval Office are a strong grasp of global issues, a seriousness of purpose, and, most of all, good judgment. We saw again this week the steeliness, calm strength, and determination of Obama. And, we also witnessed a barrage of unfounded and even wild charges from Romney, who clearly has yet to find his bearings in foreign policy. You can be sure that people around the world care what our presidential candidates think and say about foreign policy. After yesterday’s tragedy, we should too. Who says there shouldn’t be a foreign policy debate this autumn? The stakes are just too high for Americans to ignore.

Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He served as a career diplomat in Democratic and Republican administrations from Jimmy Carter to George W. Bush. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
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