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In presidential debate, President Obama is no dove, and Mitt Romney is no hawk (+video)

President Obama told Mitt Romney in last night's presidential debate: 'You say you would do the same things we did, but you would just say them louder.' Commentators draw sharp distinctions between the two men, but their foreign policy similarities are more striking than the differences.

COMMENTARY: Harvard Kennedy School professor and former diplomat Nicholas Burns discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East as part of the American Conversation Essentials series.
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President Obama landed a lot of punches in the presidential debate on foreign policy with Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, Fla. He was sharp, aggressive, and generally presidential, attacking Mr. Romney in almost every answer. His boast about his “strong and steady leadership” as opposed to Romney’s “wrong and reckless leadership” was telling. The president mocked his Republican opponent’s understanding of defense policy, explaining that the Pentagon’s horses-and-bayonets budget has fallen over time.

Mr. Obama’s truest line of the night, however, was when he said to Romney: “You say you would do the same things we did, but you would just say them louder...” Many media commentators have drawn sharp distinctions between the two candidates on international issues. Global perceptions of the two men are also noticeably different: Most of the Western world wants Obama to win.

In truth, however, the foreign-policy similarities between the two men are more striking than the differences. Obama is not as left-wing and dovish as many believe, and Romney is not as right-wing and hawkish as he would have us believe.

Obama has governed as a cautious realist, focused principally on America’s national interests. Obama’s speeches are about hope and change, but his foreign policy is about reasonableness and balance. He has also demonstrated a clear willingness to use force, sometimes unilaterally, to protect US security and interests.

It is harder to make judgments about Romney’s foreign policies. His few interventions on the topic have not been impressive. If we believe his rhetoric, then should he be elected, the foreign policy right-wing is back in business. Romney has criticized Obama for being a serial apologizer, promised a more muscular approach toward America’s adversaries, and vowed to usher in a new American Century.

But Romney’s heart doesn’t seem to be in it. His character and experiences indicate that he would more likely be a careful, analytical foreign policy-maker, who bases his decisions on expert advice and facts rather than intuition.

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