JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Though sometimes overshadowed by the U.S. economy, plenty of foreign policy problems remain for the president and Congress to address.
Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee and her Republican challenger, Rep. Todd Akin, sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Both have leadership roles on those committees. McCaskill is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support while Akin is chairman of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.
Akin contends that President Barack Obama has been "leading from behind" on matters involving national security and international threats. McCaskill touts some instances in which she has opposed Obama on military and international issues.
The Associated Press posed several questions about foreign policy to McCaskill and Akin as the last part in a weekly series examining the candidates' positions on issues that are important to voters in the Nov. 6 election. Their answers were not edited for content or length.
The AP on Afghanistan: Do you support President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014?
McCASKILL: "Winding down our formal mission in Afghanistan is the right thing to do, particularly now that Osama bin Laden has been brought to justice and Al Qaeda's safe haven there has been removed. The Afghan people must now take control of their own future, which is why I'm working to pass my plan that would strip U.S. funding for large scale infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, and plug those resources directly into rebuilding our roads and bridges here at home. We must, nonetheless, also remain vigilant to ensure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a base for international terrorism. Our troops have performed heroically, and even when this war ends, tough battles will remain ahead for those who served in Afghanistan. I'll always keep my commitment to honoring their service by making sure they have the care and benefits they've earned."
AKIN: "If we're putting the lives of American troops on the line, we must be in Afghanistan to win. If we're not planning to win in Afghanistan, we shouldn't be putting American lives on the line. President Obama promised to focus on Afghanistan but has repeatedly changed his plans there and has put politics ahead of winning the fight. If we want the 2014 transition to be successful, we need to give our commanders on the ground what they need to succeed. President Obama and his allies have repeatedly shortchanged our commanders, making it harder for them to succeed. We need real leaders, not a President who wants to 'lead from behind' and a senator who enables that kind of weak leadership."
The AP on Syria: More than 30,000 people now have been killed by fighting within Syria. The U.S. has taken no military action so far. Should the U.S. intervene in Syria? If so, in what fashion?
McCASKILL: "There are no easy solutions in Syria. The Middle East is a tinderbox and we must be very measured in what we say and do there in order to avoid unintended consequences and ensure we're acting in our long term interests. While we've got to be thoughtful about the consequences of getting involved in another country's civil war, these events do present an opportunity to advance U.S. interests of democracy and security. Just as important, the actions against the people of Syria being carried out by the current regime are horrific and unacceptable to the global community. We should keep fully engaged in diplomatic efforts and continue to seek the most effective ways to support those people fighting for liberty, without putting our own interests at risk unnecessarily or potentially supporting groups that do not share our values or interests."
AKIN: "First of all, we should not follow the path of Libya where the president started a war without congressional authorization. That simply breaks the Constitution. Once again, the Obama administration has pursued a policy of 'leading from behind' on Syria. Obama has been deferential to Russia, and Russia is one of the biggest enablers of the Assad regime in Syria."
The AP on Iran: Concerns exist that Iran could use its uranium enrichment program to produce a nuclear bomb. Do you believe it is in the best interest of the U.S. to prevent this? If so, what steps should be taken?
McCASKILL: "Iran can't be allowed to build a nuclear weapon - period. Such a development would only further destabilize an already volatile region and would pose a grave threat to Israel, an unbreakable American ally. As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I believe that no options should be off the table. I've supported substantially strengthening harsh sanctions against the government of Iran, including severe sanctions on the Bank of Iran, which we successfully passed over the objections of President Obama. I continue to support reaching a diplomatic solution to head off Iran's nuclear ambition, and protect America's greatest allies."
AKIN: "A nuclear armed Iran is a significant danger to America's interests. If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it could quickly lead to a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. President Obama and Claire McCaskill have a foreign policy that is based on apologizing and weakness, rather than standing up for what we believe in and defending our allies. The Obama and McCaskill foreign policy has weakened Israel's position in the Middle East and has done little to force a change in Iran's nuclear agenda. We must send a clear strong message to Iran while defending Israel, our best ally in the region. Iran simply must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon."
The AP on threats: What do you believe is the biggest threat to the safety and security of U.S. residents?
McCASKILL: "As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I am acutely aware of the challenges we face as we work with others around the world to keep America safe. The Middle East is a particular challenge and we must navigate this powder keg alongside our allies to ensure our interests are protected, that Israel is not isolated and that terrorist organizations do not receive aid or comfort. Threats in Central Asia and the Horn of Africa, particularly in the form of failed states, remain a deep concern. Americans know all too well the dangers posed by international terrorism and failed states around the globe. Above all else, we absolutely must guard aggressively against the risk of a nuclear weapon falling into the hands of a rogue state or actor, including Iran and extremist Islamic terror groups. I also agree with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, who said that America's national debt is a major threat to our national security, which is why, in addition to strengthening our nation's strategic defense, I've been proud to go against my own party, fighting to rein in the national debt with a cap on federal spending and an end to the abusive practice of earmarks."
AKIN: "Terrorism remains the biggest threat to the safety and security of American citizens. Unfortunately, President Obama took his eye off the ball and the September 11 attack in Benghazi resulted in the death of four Americans. Now Claire McCaskill and Harry Reid won't even hold a hearing on the Benghazi attack. President Obama and Claire McCaskill have also advocated for bringing accused terrorists from Guantanamo Bay back to Illinois. Obama and McCaskill have supported a 20 percent cut to our military which will make it harder to fight terrorists and keep America safe. McCaskill also voted to continue sending taxpayer money to Egypt, even while Egyptians are burning American flags in their streets. I have repeatedly called for suspending foreign aid to Egypt."
The AP On defense spending: Do you believe the size of the U.S. military - in terms of troops and equipment - should be reduced as part of a budget-cutting effort, held steady or increased?
McCASKILL: "As a former auditor, I know that we can save taxpayer dollars by continuing to crack down on waste, fraud, and abuse. Harry Truman would have some colorful language to describe the amount of taxpayer money going to defense contractors with too little oversight, which is why I teamed up with my friend, former Navy Secretary and combat veteran Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, and introduced comprehensive legislation to overhaul wartime contracting. This legislation is an outgrowth of the war contracting oversight commission Senator Webb and I created in the spirit of the WWII era Truman Committee. Our commission found as much as $60 billion of fraud, waste and abuse in war contracting, showing the urgency of addressing contracting spending.
"I'll also continue pursuing my commonsense legislation to strip funds for large-scale construction projects in Afghanistan and bring those resources - at least $800 million - back home for use in the construction of roads and bridges in America. At a time when our nation has a substantial list of infrastructure project needs at home, we just can't afford to build new roads and power plants for the Afghans, most of which are destroyed or fall into decay because the Afghans can neither secure nor sustain them. What's more, our military commanders have told us that these projects in Afghanistan haven't even contributed to the mission. It's time to bring those projects, jobs and investments home.
"When it comes to the size of our armed forces, we've got to be strategic. With emerging technologies, we can do more work, without putting our troops at risk. I chair the subcommittee on military readiness, and I know that decisions to reduce troop size or close down military bases can't be made brashly, or without all the facts. That's why I put a stop to the Obama administration's request for a new round of U.S. base closures for 2013. I'm committed to maintaining the strongest and most capable military on earth, but I think we can still find ways to do it effectively and efficiently."
AKIN: "Our defense budget has already been cut by roughly 20 percent in the last few years under Obama and McCaskill. The defense budget represents about 20 percent of total federal spending, but has absorbed 50 percent of the budget cuts in the past few years. These cuts are not based on a strategy, but rather a simple liberal desire to cut the military. I opposed these cuts. Not only were these cuts arbitrary, they will also hurt Missouri jobs. Missouri is the sixth largest state for defense jobs, and according to one estimate the additional defense budget cuts that Claire McCaskill voted for would lead to the loss of more than 33,000 jobs in Missouri alone. These cuts are bad for our national security and are bad for Missouri."
The AP on free trade: Congress recently approved free-trade agreements with Columbia, Panama and South Korea, the largest such expansion since the North American Free Trade Agreement and other pacts went into effect in the 1990s. Do you support the extension of free-trade agreements to additional countries? If so, which ones?
McCASKILL: "Free trade can help create Missouri jobs and boost business opportunities, but free trade has also got to be fair trade. Everyone has to compete on a level playing field, and foreign nations like China can't be allowed to cheat the system. Last year, I personally went before the International Trade Commission - the folks charged with punishing unfair trade practices - and testified on behalf of a steel wheels plant in Sedalia. I told the commission that we can't allow China to rig the game. I know the importance of cracking down on unfair trade practices, because when we're on a level playing field, Missouri companies will win. Well-structured trade agreements can especially boost opportunities for Missouri's diverse agriculture sector, which is why I've supported several trade agreements like that with South Korea."
AKIN: "Free and fair trade is a great way to build our economy and add jobs. American workers are the best in the world and I believe that if the rules are fair, American workers can compete against any producers in the world. I have voted for free trade agreements and believe they bring benefit to our state and our country."