Polls show the two presidential candidates are essentially tied. Six months ago, pundits might have said a debate on foreign policy could only help President Barack Obama, who was withdrawing troops from two unpopular wars and who ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But that was six months ago.
One month ago, President Obama had a 15-point lead on Republican nominee Mitt Romney on foreign policy, according to a Pew Research Center poll. That shrunk to an essential tie this month, likely because of the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. On Monday night, the final presidential debate, held at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., Gov. Romney didn't hammer the president, perhaps because he thought global events were doing the job for him.
The Arab Spring has turned into a hailstorm. Syria has drawn its neighbors into what has become a protracted civil war. Turkey fired missiles to protect its civilians from Syria. The Syrian government was allegedly behind a bombing last week in Beirut that killed Lebanon’s top intelligence official. Syria’s Christians are persecuted and fleeing. The United States has declined to intervene, and is working to empty Afghanistan of U.S. troops even as the Taliban reasserts its power. Jordan announced Monday that it disrupted an elaborate al-Qaeda bomb plot targeting shopping malls and Western diplomats. President Obama has said these last few months that al-Qaeda is “on its heels.”
And in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, four Americans including the U.S. ambassador to Libya were killed in what the Obama administration characterized as an unruly protest but news reports confirmed was a planned terrorist attack. Iran still threatens, while Israel and the United States display a slightly chilly relationship. Obama has not visited Israel once in his four-year term, and did not meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was in the United States for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this fall. Both pleaded scheduling conflicts. But the president didn’t officially meet with any foreign leaders at the UNGA this fall, when at the last UNGA he had 13 such meetings.
But very little of this came up in the debate on Monday evening—nor the Euro crisis or the Mexican drug war. Debate moderator Bob Schieffer’s first question to Romney was on the Benghazi attack, which Romney mostly ignored to talk about the failure of the Arab Spring as a whole. “What we’re seeing is a pretty dramatic reversal in the hopes we have for that region,” he said blandly.
Both candidates made their points effectively, though Obama attacked Romney at every opportunity, accusing him of sending jobs overseas and wanting to liquidate the American auto industry. Yes, this was a foreign policy debate, but both candidates tried to talk about the U.S. economy whenever the opportunity presented itself. Though the debate did trail off into domestic issues like education repeatedly, Schieffer skillfully navigated the discussion for the most part, giving each candidate about equal speaking time. Romney made few hits on Obama until the end of the debate.
The candidates had different tacks in the debate but showed little difference on substance. Romney insisted on no military involvement in Syria, which has been the Obama administration’s position. When Schieffer gave him the opportunity to talk tough on Pakistan, he demurred. On Israel, Obama said, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.” Romney followed with, “If Israel is attacked, we have their back.”
Obama referred to himself as “commander-in-chief” several times, underscoring his position as the one with experience making foreign policy decisions. “My job is to keep the American people safe, and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years,” he said. The president also mentioned that “attitudes about Americans have changed” around the world since he took office. (Actually, attitudes toward the United States are worse in the Middle East since the Bush administration, according to Pew.) Then Obama pivoted to hammer Romney. “Your strategy previously has been all over the map and has not been one designed to keep America safe,” he said. “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”
“Attacking me is not an agenda,” Romney replied. “Attacking me is not talking about how we’re going to face the challenges in the Middle East.”
Neither spent much time talking about that. Obama did mention, three times, the importance of protecting religious minorities in the Middle East, while Romney did not mention their plight once.
Romney now receives intelligence briefings—part of the preparation in case he becomes president—and that knowledge sifted easily through the discussion and helped Romney look presidential.
One of Romney’s strongest moments was when Obama said that the Romney campaign had lied about his traveling around doing an “apology tour.”
“Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq,” Romney said. “And by the way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. … And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America had dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
Maybe voters don’t care about the events in the Middle East much. A Google Politics survey showed that registered voters who planned to watch the debate wanted the candidates to talk about U.S. debt to China over and above every other international issue, even U.S./Israel relations, by a wide margin. The candidates didn’t discuss that issue. And to add to the distraction, the debate had to compete with Monday Night Football and Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.