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Editorial: Mitt Romney and Barack Obama need to provide foreign-affairs clarity

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama will face off in the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead. Credit: AP

The presidential race, until now dialed in on the economy, will turn to foreign affairs when the candidates meet in Florida Monday for their final debate.

How to lead the nation and the world in one of the most complex and challenging global environments in history is no sideshow. It's a critical, life-or-death responsibility that falls almost exclusively to the president.

The highest-profile issue on that front is this year's Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where four Americans died, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. President Barack Obama is being hammered for taking too long to disclose that it was terrorism and challenger Mitt Romney for having criticized the president while the attack was still unfolding.

Finding out what happened in Libya and bringing the guilty to justice is imperative, especially with a man suspected of leading the lethal assault reportedly spotted brazenly sipping a drink on the patio of a luxury hotel in Benghazi. But the American people must hear other matters debated, too.

Terrorism -- As wars in Iraq and Afghanistan recede into history, so should the policy of fighting terrorists through military occupation and nation-building, anti-insurgency campaigns. A focused anti-terrorism effort using unmanned drones and special operations units to target individual terrorist leaders has cost less in death and dollars and proved more effective. But targeting individuals abroad for execution, including American citizens, raises important legal and moral questions.

The Middle East -- The Arab Spring is full of opportunity and pitfalls. The despotic regimes in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have fallen, but the flowering of democracy is destabilizing. Attempts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad have devolved into a brutal civil war. Promoting U.S. interests in that complex, shifting environment will be difficult. The public needs to know how Obama and Romney would forge relationships with the region's rebels, nurture emerging governments, and nudge them toward democracy and economic viability.

Iran -- That nation is a ticking, potentially nuclear time bomb and may be the place of a new U.S. military conflict. Obama and Romney have each pledged not to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But Iran's reckless threat to annihilate Israel has led to tension between Israel -- which wants a more aggressive U.S. posture -- and the Obama administration -- which wants to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work.

So far that hasn't persuaded Iran to halt its nuclear program. But a steep fall in the value of its currency and rapidly rising prices have ignited protests inside Iran. Economic hardship could yet prompt regime change, or persuade Iran's leaders to abandon their nuclear aspirations. Another war in the Muslim world should be the last resort. But how close are we to the "red line" beyond which combat becomes the only viable option?

China -- Xi Jinping is expected to be installed as China's new president two days after our election. Both leaders must forge a peaceful, pragmatic long-term relationship.

China has become a major world power. Its large, fast-growing economy and increased military spending have boosted its clout in Asia and its influence around the world. Obama tacitly acknowledged as much in January when he announced he will shift this nation's military focus away from Europe and toward the Asia-Pacific region. Obama and Romney should be pressed on whether that's the right course and how they would engage China to resolve trade disputes while ensuring its cooperation on matters of global security.

Candidates historically have had a different view of the world once they're in the Oval Office. Still, voters need to know where they are now and where they want to go.