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“Foreign Policy” Debate Roundup

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the foreign policy presidential debate. October 22, 2012.

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama on stage at the foreign policy presidential debate. October 22, 2012. Photo by Irina Lagunina, courtesy of Voice of America, PD.

The final presidential debate, intended to be on the subject of foreign policy, was held last evening at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida. Below are some highlights and lowlights from the debate.

Snap polls say? According to a CNN-ORC snap poll, 48 percent of voters said President Obama won, while 40 percent said Mitt Romney did. In the CBS snap poll of uncommitted voters, 53 percent said Obama won, 24 percent said Romney did, and another 24 percent called it a tie. A Google snap poll gave Obama a ten percent advantage. However, as Nate Silver points out, Obama is not likely to get as much of a bounce because voters have more information now than they did before the first debate and because most people were watching Monday Night Football and baseball games. That being said, in such a close election, even a small bounce could help the President.

Oh, snap! When Romney repeated his previously used line that the Navy is smaller now than at any time since World War I, Obama was prepared with a sarcastic retort: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.” Google searches for the term “bayonets” spiked 7215% during the debate. Fact check: the U.S. Army still uses bayonets.

Didn’t take the bait. Although the first debate question raised the September 11 terrorist attacks in Libya, Romney preferred to forego the opportunity to attack President Obama’s handling of the situation. This came as a surprise to many in the commentariat who had anticipated that the issue would be rehashed once again. I personally was relieved that the candidates found other foreign policy issues to discuss, even though I was disappointed they didn’t address important issues and countries such as multilateralism, NATO, Europe, countries other than China in East Asia, and India.

It was a foreign policy debate, stupid! With very few differences between them on foreign policy issues, the candidates once again turned their attention to domestic issues, ranging from jobs, to education, to healthcare, to the debt, to the auto industry.  At one point moderator Bob Scheiffer had to remind the candidates that it was a foreign policy debate and attempted to refocus their attention. The reality is that foreign and domestic policy are inherently linked. Does it make sense to continue to hold separate domestic and foreign policy debates?

Romney's most direct attack against the President was over his handing of the uprisings in the Middle East, Iran’s nuclear program and treatment of Israel. For example, Romney accused President Obama of remaining silent on protests in Iran. As Glenn Kessler points out, Obama was initially muted because he didn’t want it to inhibit his ability re-launch negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program and because he didn’t want the U.S. to be accused of intervening in the country’s affairs. Romney held the upper hand on Iraq. Since Obama wasn’t able to reach a status of forces agreement with the government of Iraq, he has stressed that he removed all troops from the country, all the while attacking Romney for supporting a SOFA.

Even more convergence? While Romney attacked Obama’s foreign policy, he also articulated nearly indistinguishable positions. Both candidates support the use of drones. On Syria, Romney explicitly stated he didn't want to get involved militarily and argued more broadly that “we can't kill our way out of” the problems in the Middle East. Romney said sanctions on Iran were working, even if his administration would institute tougher sanctions. Romney also praised President Obama on Afghanistan and Pakistan. During the debate, both candidates vied to demonstrate their support for Israel, which was mentioned some 22 times.

Romney’s foreign policy vision seemed to display inherent contradictions at times in expressing his support for democracy in the Middle East, but opposition to Islamism. Romney also left fact checkers puzzling over the claim that Syria is Iran’s route to the sea – the two countries share no border and Iran has 1,500 miles of coastline. And once again, Romney reiterated his claim that Obama when on an “Apology Tour,” which fact checkers have said did not happen. For his part, Obama has made too much of Romney’s 2007 statement that he would not move heaven and earth to find Osama bin Laden.

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