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Republicans angling to recapture the Senate and White House have focused almost exclusively on jobs and the economy. But with an uptick in violence in Afghanistan and uncertainty in the Middle East, foreign policy could be thrust back into the national debate.
Thus far, President Barack Obama has gone largely unchallenged on his foreign policy credentials. His lack of experience was viewed as a weakness in 2008 when he was running against Vietnam veteran and Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (Ariz.).
But Obama has been able to largely avoid or dismiss criticisms of his policies abroad after scoring several foreign policy and military successes. Those include the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden, the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi with help from NATO forces and the fulfillment of a campaign promise to withdraw troops from Iraq.
As November inches nearer, however, Republicans could try to make a case using Iran, Israel, Syria and Afghanistan to create more separation between themselves and the president, especially if the economy continues grow stronger.
"I think the president is doing such a good job — a solid job — on foreign policy that the Republicans haven't found any particular chink in his armor. If they could, they would, believe me, exploit everything we've seen," Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said. "Anytime they can, they're trying to criticize the president."
But Levin was more circumspect when asked whether Republicans could leverage the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where a half-dozen U.S. troops were killed in a span of eight days after U.S. soldiers burned copies of the Quran at a military base in the country. "I hope not, obviously," he said.
Levin noted that increased violence in Afghanistan would not affect the preliminary phases of the administration's drawdown plan — which would withdraw the remaining 23,000 "surge" troops from the country by the end of September — but he said what happens after that is still under discussion.
That drawdown is scheduled to occur just weeks before Election Day, and the situation could remain fluid through then.
"What we've seen is how foreign policy can intrude itself into our plans here in unpredictable sorts of ways that change the conversation," National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said. "Obviously, we're all very concerned about what's happening in Iran and with some of their threats."
Concern has been growing around the world about the threat Iran may pose to the region, and particularly Israel, if it develops a nuclear weapon.