On foreign policy, Hassan and Ayotte jostle for authority

  • In this Thursday, June 18, 2015 photo, New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan announces her plans to veto the proposed state budget sent to her desk by the Republican legislature. With negotiations on the state budget likely stalled until the fall, Hassan's political future remains in a holding pattern. National Democrats hope to recruit her to run for U.S. Senate against Kelly Ayotte. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

Monitor staff
Published: 4/17/2016 11:45:21 PM

When it comes to the issue of foreign policy in New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate race, it’s hardly a fair fight between Democrat Gov. Maggie Hassan and Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte.

Terrorism and Middle Eastern policy are poised to be top issues in the competitive race, and Republicans are already trying to paint Hassan as weak on national security.

Ayotte, who has positioned herself as a hawk on foreign policy during her five years on Capitol Hill, serves on Senate committees for armed services and homeland security. As governor, Hassan has less purview of international affairs.

Hassan keeps up on international issues by reading news, reviewing reports and consulting with experts, she told the Monitor editorial board in a recent interview.

While the Democrat wouldn’t name any of her advisers during the interview, her campaign later provided a three-person list that includes U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, former New Hampshire congressman and U.S. ambassador to Denmark Dick Swett and former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Jim Smith of Salem.

None of the advisers would explicitly outline advice they’ve given Hassan, but the two former ambassadors say isolationism is detrimental, and America should focus its international efforts on economic development over military force.

“We have an opportunity to use economic development, as well as military presence hand-in-hand, hopefully in a peaceful way, to promote the U.S. presence around the world,” said Swett, who now runs a company that focuses on interntional development.

Smith, who spent 28 years in the Air Force before President Obama appointed him ambassador in 2009, said the focus should be on long-term growth and stability. “Military is the last choice,” he said.

Shaheen, who has long been a mentor to Hassan and serves on the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, declined a request for an interview.

Hassan has so far centered her U.S. Senate campaign on domestic issues that include preserving Medicare and Social Security, giving women access to reproductive health care and making college affordable.

But in a recent interview with the Monitor editorial board, Hassan outlined priorities on foreign policy, and emphasized a balance between diplomacy and strength.

She called for the U.S. to maintain a strong military, but said it should be used only as a last resort. She pushed for the country to take care of the “world’s most vulnerable people” and also ensure safety of American citizens.

But Hassan offered few policy details about how to achieve those goals. On tension in the South China Sea, Hassan said the U.S. should continue putting pressure “on all of the parties” to keep the body of water open for shipping and passage.

The Democrat staked out positions on Middle East policy, saying she opposes an expansion of American combat troops in Syria and Iraq, but supports increased airstrikes in the fight against ISIS. She said America hasn’t done enough to combat the terrorist organization, and urged Congress to pass an authorization of use of military force that outlines how the country proceeds in the fight against ISIS.

Ayotte’s campaign has criticized Hassan on foreign policy issues, but it’s not yet clear what role the topic will play in the race. It depends on what happens, both domestically and abroad, in the months before the election, and on the presidential campaign rhetoric, political experts said.

“It’s true that there’s a lot of public concern about terrorism, but there’s also a lot of concern about the economy,” said Dartmouth College government professor Linda Fowler. “Public opinion is quite volatile on foreign affairs.”

Democrats and Republicans in New Hampshire say economy and jobs are issues that matter most, according to New York Times exit polls of the state’s primary voters. Terrorism trailed, with 9 percent of Democrats and 24 percent of Republicans naming that a top issue. But fear of a looming terror attack was a concern for a majority of New Hampshire voters. Almost 70 percent of Democratics and 90 percent of Republicans said they are “very or somewhat worried” about a terrorist attack.

Hassan has taken strong stands on national security. She drew criticism from members of her own party last year when she called for the U.S. to temporarily stop accepting Syrian refugees after the Paris terror attacks. Hassan was one of the more than two dozen governors to take that position, but the only Democrat.

Both Swett and Smith said they didn’t advise her on the refugee issue. Shaheen’s stance – that “refugees seeking entry into the United States undergo rigorous processing” – ran in contrast to Hassan’s.

Hassan has defended her position, saying the administration should be continuously improving the visa entry program. She didn’t outline specific areas for revision.

Since the Paris attacks, she said, New Hampshire has resettled two Syrian refugees, but one left almost immediately.

“The security of our state is our top priority,” Hassan said. “But we are also a welcoming and inclusive place and its very important not to demonize people.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307, amorris@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @amorrisNH.)

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