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Presidential debate: Romney and Obama bring it back home

The final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama underscored that their most important foreign policy differences have less to do with events on distant shores than priorities at home.

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The third and final presidential debate between Mitt Romney and President Obama was supposed to offer a vibrant exchange of views on America’s role and posture in the world. Instead it was notable both for agreement on key foreign conflicts and a constant drift back to domestic policy disputes.

There are obvious political reasons for this. Undecided voters – if there still are any – are more likely to be influenced by plans to create jobs than strategies to stabilize Pakistan. The debate offered the candidates one last appeal to a national audience with the ballot just two weeks away.

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But at a deeper level the debate underscored that the most important foreign policy differences between the two candidates have less to do with events on distant shores than priorities at home. How each would manage the economy would influence the priorities they project abroad.

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The cold war, as President Obama reminded former Governor Mitt Romney last night, is over. In its place is a tangle of more complex conflict issues: transnational terrorism, rogue states, failed states, emerging democracies, and nonstate insurgencies.

Managing these challenges was the primary security focus during the first decade after 9/11. At the same time, however, the rise of China, India, and other densely populated emerging powers poses new challenges to US economic competitiveness.

Mr. Romney struggled to articulate a significantly different policy approach to the hard and soft security questions posed by Afghanistan, Iran’s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, Syria’s civil war, and the Arab Spring.

Take Iran, for example. Obama said that the administration’s efforts to impose stiff sanctions to force Tehran to abandon its nuclear program involved “painstaking” and “meticulous” efforts to ensure that “all the countries participated, even countries like Russia and China....It’s because we got everybody to agree that Iran is seeing so much pressure.”

In response, Romney praised the tighter sanctions, but said he’d have done it sooner.

The Republican nominee also tried to lay unrest in the Middle East on Obama, blaming the president for failing to recognize Arab discontent before it erupted in the streets, and implying that he failed to stop the spread of Islamic extremism and allowed the Syrian government to kill 30,000 of its own people.

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When asked how he would respond to those crises, however, he supported Obama’s use of drones against suspected Al Qaeda members and mostly repeated Obama’s insistence that supporting education and economic opportunities for young Arabs – particularly women – is essential to creating stability in the region.

Part of the challenge for Romney is that while Obama’s foreign policy has been at times inconsistent or even negligent – particularly with regard to the Israel-Palestinian peace process – the challenges of Iran, Syria, and Pakistan pose few easy alternatives.

It is possible, however, to imagine what a truly robust foreign policy debate might have sounded like last night had either or both candidates set out specific bold agendas to address security, environmental, and economic questions as braided issues.

Obama, for example, might have proposed doubling gas prices – to rates resembling what much of the rest of the world pays at the pump – and using a few of those extra dollars per gallon to address both climate change and jobs creation through investment in green energy research and development.

Romney could have called for making private sector investments in math and science education a mandatory condition of new concessions for oil and gas exploration on federal lands. That effort would aim to create jobs and promote both energy independence and future competitiveness at the same time.

Each candidate has picked apart the other’s economic plan in previous debates. Neither, however, has linked his approach with a kind of Singapore-style economic security question: What kind of workforce will the United States need in 25 years to remain competitive, and how do we create it?

In talking about the role of the United States in the world, Obama said: “America remains the one indispensable nation.” His opponent echoed that point. “The mantle of leadership for the – promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.”

Both are right. The world largely looks to the US as either a catalyst or impediment to global progress on issues ranging from climate change to democratization in the Middle East to international economic stability. The three debates have covered a wide range of domestic and foreign policy subjects – some cursorily through talking points, some combatively through half-truths, some fairly.

Now it is up to voters to connect the dots. While it was the design of the debates to treat international issues separately, last night underscored the need to recognize domestic economic priorities and stability equally as foreign policy.

The candidates could have been bolder and clearer, but a choice exists between two paths toward economic recovery. The task is to decide which approach will promote America’s  competitiveness and credibility abroad as much as its prosperity at home.

Kurt Shillinger is a former political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He also covered sub-Saharan Africa for The Boston Globe.