The story of Monday night’s third and final presidential debate is a simple one: The candidates essentially have the same platform when it comes to foreign policy. But President Barack Obama, as the incumbent with a proven track record of success in that arena, came off as the natural winner of the debate because of the simple fact that his Republican challenger was constantly forced to admit he agreed with the president’s courses of action overseas.
Whether the topic was the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, the brewing civil war in Syria, the troop drawdown in Afghanistan, Iranian sanctions or defending Israel, Romney said he agreed with current actions being taken by the Obama administration. There were some differences: mainly, Romney’s call for a $2 trillion increase in military spending (despite bending over backwards to assure voters he would not lead the nation into another military conflict); his instance that a nuclear Iran -- not al Qaeda -- was the world’s greatest threat; and his pledge to label China a currency manipulator on his first day of office. (Romney's previous "Day 1" pledges also include: repealing Obamacare, getting approval for the Keystone pipeline, reforming welfare, and reinstating the Mexico City Policy).
As he has in the previous two presidential debates, Romney took every opportunity to paint himself as a centrist. He bristled at Obama’s suggestion that his policies would follow the example of the Bush-Cheney administration, emphasizing the United States’ role as a nation builder like he never did before, and saying he would provide aid to support democratic governments and discourage terrorism. More than once, Romney said the U.S. is responsible for promoting the “principles of peace” in the international community, although -- once again -- the Republican presidential candidate is running on a platform that includes a massively increasing military budget.
Romney’s professed goal of bringing about a “peaceful planet” was also called into question when he told moderator Bob Schieffer that he agreed with Obama’s increased use of drones to target terrorists overseas. It’s safe to say the biggest fail of the night may have been how Schieffer completely let the president off the hook about his use of drone technology, a source of tremendous debate in the international community. Obama’s questionable violation of civil liberties and human rights in this area -- by targeting some American citizens overseas for death without an opportunity for trial -- is a stark contrast to the liberal principles he espoused in 2008.
Because the candidates ultimately agreed more than they disagreed, both Obama and Romney frequently strayed from the questions asked to focus on the domestic economic issues that have defined the campaign. But the goal for the night for either candidate was clear: Obama sought to highlight Romney’s foreign policy inexperience -- even ignorance -- by frequently referring to how his positions have been “all over the map” and implying that, as a result, foreign leaders would not know where he stood. Romney’s goal was to show he could be a credible commander-in-chief, which he attempted to accomplish by insisting the U.S. has less influence in the international community than it did four years ago because of Obama’s “weakness" and willingness to sacrifice the nation's "military superiority" by potentially lowering defense spending.
While this may not have been the most exciting debate of the 2012 season, there were some memorable moments:
Obama slamming Romney on military spending. As noted, this was the one subject where the candidates clearly had different positions. It also brought the debate back to one of Romney’s most vulnerable areas -- his tax reform policy -- when Obama asked his GOP challenger how he could conceivably increase the military budget by $2 trillion (something the Pentagon has not requested) while also cutting taxes and lowering the budget deficit. Romney leaned on one of his common comebacks, telling Schieffer he could go on his campaign website to see how the math on his budget plan adds up.
To which Obama was eventually able to reply: “We’ve visited the website quite a bit. And it still doesn’t work.”
Obama Resurrects Romney’s Russia Flub. After Romney outlined how he would combat terrorist groups in the Middle East, Obama -- who was not afraid to be combative -- said he was glad Romney recognized that groups like al Qaeda are a threat since he had previously said Russia is the nation’s greatest geopolitical foe.
Obama went on to say that Romney has a dated, Cold War vision of the world, making one of the best zingers of the night: “Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s,” the president said.
Women are key. While this debate did not specifically deal with so-called “women’s issues,” both candidates -- obviously aware that women are a key demographic that could swing the election -- frequently mentioned that promoting women’s rights and educational opportunities is one of the major ways to institute democratic values in the Middle East.
Romney’s inability to differentiate himself on Iran. For a candidate who calls a nuclear Iran the world’s “greatest threat” and accuses the current administration of “weakness” in its dealings with the country, Romney was unable to say how his own policy would be different from Obama’s. That became especially clear after Obama said the U.S. -- and it's military -- would undoubtedly stand by Israel if it is attacked.
And while Romney has frequently criticized Obama for being weak on Iran while on the campaign trail, during the debate he said he believed the economic sanctions the White House is currently pushing against the country -- which the Congressional Research Service has described as “crippling” -- are effective. Then, he launched into a tirade about how he would have put those sanctions in seven years earlier (apparently, then, his problem is apparently with the Bush administration).
Ultimately, Romney did not say how his strategy regarding Iran would be any different from Obama’s. But he seemed to imply that under a Romney presidency -- and its strengthened military -- Iran would less likely to experiment with nuclear weapons because it would be intimidated by America’s strong leadership and military might.
This is also how Romney explained his strategy in Syria. Schieffer even directly asked if the Republican candidate would “go beyond” what the current administration is doing in the country. While this could have been an opportunity for Romney to take take some kind of stand –- after all, he kept referring to the approximately 30,000 people who have been brutally killed in the Syrian uprising -- he didn’t even call for instituting a no-fly zone.
‘We all love teachers.’ This closing line by Schieffer was amusing because it was demonstrative of just how often the candidates diverted from foreign policy to talk about domestic issues. Toward the end of the debate, Romney, while justifying his belief that the federal government should not control the nation’s public education system, seemed to try to soften that blow by repeating “I love teachers.”
As he attempt to get a word in to signal it was time for closing statements, a slightly exasperated Schieffer could not help but say “I think we all love teachers” before thanking both of the candidates for their participation in the debate.