How the Obama-Romney foreign-policy debate could determine the election
With turmoil increasing in world hot spots, foreign policy and national security have become major presidential campaign issues. From China to Israel, Iran to Syria, stateless terrorists to struggling alliances, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have plenty to debate Monday night.
Nobody would have predicted that just a few weeks ago. But with Mr. Romneyâ€™s late-in-the-day insurgency in the polls, the race has become dead even. And momentum â€“ what George H.W. Bush called â€śthe Big Moâ€ť â€“ seems to be on Romneyâ€™s side.
Two main reasons:
First, Romney clearly won the first debate against President Obama, who even jokes now about â€śthe nice long nap I had in the first debate.â€ť In their second set-to, Obama was much more engaged, even animated. But aside from Romneyâ€™s gaffe about â€śbinders full of women,â€ť the challenger pretty much held his own against the incumbent president.
Second, most voting Americans may worry about the economy first, but foreign policy and national security have become much more important as well. Israelâ€™s security, Iranâ€™s nuclear program, Chinaâ€™s currency, violent revolution in Syria, and certainly LibyaÂ â€“ since the US ambassador was killed in a terrorist attack there â€“ all have become major campaign issues and therefore debating points.
You can be sure Romney will try to paint that as adding up to weakness and indecision â€“ â€śleading from behindâ€ť is sure to be brought up â€“ not to mention what he claims is a certain distancing from Israel.
â€śUnfortunately, this presidentâ€™s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East,â€ť Romney said in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this month. â€śWhen we look at the Middle East today, with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region and with violent extremists on the march, and with an American ambassador and three others dead â€“ likely at the hands of Al QaedaÂ affiliates â€“ itâ€™s clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office.â€ť
The terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya â€“ which came on the anniversary of 9/11 at a time when much of the region was in turmoil over a crude anti-Islam YouTube video made in the United States â€“ is particularly troublesome for Obama.
Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius reports that initial CIA â€śtalking points,â€ť provided by a senior US intelligence official, supported UN Ambassador Susan Riceâ€™s early contention that the attack in Benghazi was tied to protests against the YouTube video.
But Republicans in Congress (and Romney) have jumped all over the Obama administrationâ€™s subsequent remarks on the episode, particularly statements regarding â€śterrorismâ€ť and â€śterrorists.â€ť
Itâ€™s all of a piece, Romney charges. â€śOur country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them,â€ť he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column.
Still, Obama can rightly claim to have decimated Al Qaedaâ€™s leadership, including Osama bin Laden. And itâ€™s unlikely that Romney as president â€“ despite his buddy-buddy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu â€“ could do any more than Obama has done to tighten the economic screws on Iran.
Meanwhile, the debate over whoâ€™s toughest on Iran took a new twist when the New York Times (citing â€śadministration officialsâ€ť) reported Saturday that the United States andÂ IranÂ â€śhave agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations overÂ Iranâ€™s nuclear program â€¦ setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.â€ť
Was this some sort of â€śOctober surprise?â€ť Not so, insisted administration officials, who denied the report.
But the Romney camp was quick to label it â€śanother example of a national security leak from the White House,â€ť as Sen. Rob Portman, who played Obama in Romney's debate preparations,Â did Sunday on NBCâ€™s â€śMeet the Press.â€ť
Obama spokesmen were just as quick to defend administration policy on Iran.
"For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition. And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, also speaking on NBC. "They're feeling the heat. And that's what the sanctions were meant to do."
Both Obama and Romney are preparing to the hilt for Monday nightâ€™s encounter. The last thing either wants to do is have the post-debate discussion focus on a â€śbindersâ€ť kind of gaffe â€“ the kind that helped deny Gerald Ford reelection in 1976 when he declared in a debate with Jimmy Carter, â€śThere is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.â€ť
"I think the stakes are pretty high for both candidates," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on CBSâ€™s â€śFace the Nationâ€ť Sunday. "If we are lucky, we, the voters, we will come out of it at the end thinking, 'I actually know something of Mitt Romney's philosophy as he looks at the world and America's place in it. I understand better what President Obama wants to do and how he sees things.' "