The Final Presidential Debate: Obama & Romney On Foreign Policy

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There may be a presidential election around the corner, but voters won’t have two competing foreign policies to choose from at the ballot box, at least among the major parties. If Monday night’s debate proved anything, it showed that when it comes to drone strikes, the war in Afghanistan, relations with Pakistan, the intervention in Libya, support for Israel or for “crippling sanctions” on Iran, there is little difference between the two parties.

“I know that Mitt Romney tried to offer his endorsement of virtually everything President Obama did,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We accept his endorsement.”

Only the debate’s 90-minute clock limited the ability of the two men to agree on the fundamental role of the United States in world affairs. An hour into the debate, Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of U.S. troops still remain, had barely been mentioned.

That left the debate one of style rather than substance, an area where President Barack Obama dominated, turning in a commanding while at times edgy performance that kept Romney on his heels. Foreign policy is not Romney’s strength — witness his gaffe-riddled tour of friendly nations this summer.

Romney policy adviser Lanhee Chen said the Republican’s main goal was to remain above the fray and stay calm and positive, rather than engaging in a nasty dogfight. That, he believed, was all that was required to keep the momentum that Romney gained from the first debate on Oct. 3 and which appears to have slowed but not stopped since, driving Romney ahead in national numbers and to a dead heat in key swing states like Ohio.

Obama didn’t let the broad consensus stop him from attacking Romney at every turn. “Governor Romney,” Obama said in his first response, “I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”

Romney’s goal, meanwhile, was to paint a picture of chaos and failure in the Middle East. “We’ve watched this tumult in the Middle East, this rising tide of chaos occur, you see Al Qaida rushing in, you see other jihadist groups rushing in,” Romney said. “They’re throughout many nations in the Middle East.”

Romney’s least presidential moment came when he criticized Obama for overseeing a Navy that is too small, which Romney dramatized by noting that we have fewer ships today and “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”

Obama responded sarcastically. “I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” he said, growing even more snarky. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”

By contrast, Romney seemed intent on not pressing hot political buttons, most notably on the matter of the attacks in Libya, indicating that that political viability of that topic may have run its course.

Instead it was Obama who found himself repeatedly raising Libya, in order to emphasize what he portrayed as his deft handling of a complex situation. Psaki, the Obama spokeswoman, said that the Obama campaign felt the discussion of Libya in the previous debate, at Hofstra, “was one of our best moments.”

One of the most contentious moments of Monday’s debate came not over foreign policy, but over Romney’s insistence that Detroit followed his prescription to its successful turnaround. It’s an audacious move, given that Romney had opposed federal assistance during the bankruptcy process, which observers of the industry say would have quickly led to liquidation of General Motors and Chrysler. Romney insisted he had supported federal help during bankruptcy for the auto industry.

“I said they need — these companies need to go through a managed bankruptcy. And in that process, they can get government help and government guarantees, but they need to go through bankruptcy to get rid of excess cost and the debt burden that they’d built up,” Romney said.

“You did not say that you would provide government help,” Obama challenged.

“I said that we would provide guarantees, and that was what was able to allow these companies to go through bankruptcy, to come out of bankruptcy,” Romney said, suggesting Obama and the audience read his op-ed in the New York Times closely.

Romney’s strategy to agree with Obama as much as possible on foreign policy left him unable to attack one of the president’s weakest points, the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Obama’s post-election surge of troops has done remarkably little to bring the war closer to an end, calling the entire strategy into question. But now that Obama has announced the eventual withdrawal of troops — a withdrawal Romney has at turns opposed and supported — Romney had little entry to challenge him.

After watching all three Presidential debates what do you think?

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