James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Obama and Romney Set to Focus on the Middle East

by James M. Lindsay
October 22, 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama point fingers during the second presidential debate. (Mike Segar/ courtesy Reuters) Mitt Romney and Barack Obama point fingers during the second presidential debate. (Mike Segar/ courtesy Reuters)


Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet tonight in Boca Raton, Florida to debate foreign policy. Both campaigns see the third and final debate as their best opportunity to reach the public before Election Day. The two candidates will be speaking to voters who expect to hear affirmations of U.S. leadership but who are also skeptical of foreign entanglements in the midst of tough economic times and after more than a decade of war.

Although the harsh rhetoric on the campaign trail sometimes suggests otherwise, Monday night’s debate won’t pit fundamentally different visions of American foreign policy against each other. Obama’s and Romney’s views are broadly similar. Both men are internationalists with a strong pragmatic streak; they largely agree on the chief threats the United States faces overseas. The imperatives of the debate, however, will push the two candidates to stress their differences far more than their similarities.

The six topics that moderator Bob Scheiffer has selected for discussion—one for each of the debate’s six fifteen-minute sections—focus primarily on the Greater Middle East. Obama and Romney largely agree on U.S. objectives in the region: stopping Iran from going nuclear, supporting Israel, turning security responsibilities over to the Afghans by 2014, encouraging the ouster of the al-Assad government in Syria, and dismantling al Qaeda and its affiliates. Their differences are primarily over details, tactics, and tone. One potentially significant difference is whether the United States should seek to deny Iran a nuclear weapon, as Obama has argued, or even a nuclear capability, as Romney has contended.

The one country outside the Greater Middle East that the candidates will discuss is China. Romney has accused Obama of failing to vigorously challenge predatory Chinese trade practices and has pledged to label China a “currency manipulator” once in office. A scrap over currency practices might not leave time to discuss an equally important issue, China’s growing military power in Asia.

Several critical foreign policy issues didn’t make the cut for the debate. Mexico isn’t on the agenda, even though growing drug-related violence there could have a substantial consequences for the United States. Neither is defense spending nor U.S.-Russian relations, despite the fact that Romney pledges to increase the defense budget substantially and argues that Russia constitutes America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Other topics not slated for discussion include climate change, the Eurozone crisis, foreign aid, Africa, Venezuela, and global health.

Will Monday night’s debate determine the election? Probably not. Presidential debates seldom move public opinion much or for very long. This tendency is especially likely to hold now because voters are far more worried about jobs and the economy than about foreign policy.

Finally, a historical irony: tonight’s debate comes on the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s televised address to the nation that the Soviets had begun installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. That crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war. Its anniversary is a solemn reminder of the stakes in foreign policy.

This article is also posted at PBS Newshour.

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