Mitt Romney and Barack Obama square off in the third and final presidential debate on Monday in Boca Raton, Florida, focusing on foreign policy and national security. Romney proved wrong the old maxim that debates don’t influence voters with a strong performance in Colorado, catapulting himself into a dead heat with Obama and reinvigorating a campaign that political analysts had once pronounced dead. Obama reassured his supporters in the second debate, taking a more aggressive tone in attacking Romney and in defending his own record.
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With the presidential debate reasserting its relevance in a close race, a strong or weak performance at the final showdown in Boca Raton could make or break a campaign. However, the focus on foreign policy confronts another election cliché: that voters don’t cast their ballots based on foreign policy. This is a shame, because both candidates have quite a bit to answer for. Here’s what I want to learn from the debate:
- Can either candidate articulate an overarching foreign policy? To date we’ve only heard about incidents (Benghazi,Syria, killing Osama bin Laden). What is America's role in the world and how will it be achieved?
- Afghanistan. Romney says he will somehow be more flexible than the president while also pursuing the 2014 timeline. Can Romney explain how his position differs from Obama’s? Can Obama explain howAmerica will preserve its interests and goals in Afghanistan while committing to a 2014 withdrawal regardless of the in-country circumstances?
- Iran. Like Afghanistan, Romney’s position is the same (ratcheting up sanctions with the military option kept on the table), but different (Romney will be “tougher” than Obama). Can Romney substantively differentiate his position? More importantly, how will both candidates approach the one-on-one talks between Iran and the U.S. recently revealed by the New York Times?
- China. Can Obama explain what his “Asian Pivot” means, how it relates to dealing with China’s rise, and how it fits into his broader foreign policy goals? Will Romney come with more talking points than exchange rate manipulation?
- The Arab Spring. Beyond the Benghazi consultant and the Syrian civil war, how will each candidate deal with a Middle East that is freer politically yet more unpredictable?
- Africa and Latin America. In the decade since September 11th, we shouldn’t forget that there’s more to foreign policy than military intervention and fighting terrorism. The candidates shouldn’t either. Can either candidate outline pursuit of American interests with our hemispheric neighbors and rising economies in Africa?
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8:01 pm: An hour before the debate and CNN already rolling out the Monday Night Football style highlight package and Michael Bay soundtrack, terming tonight the "tiebreaker."
8:10 pm: CNN airs an interview with President Obama in which he directly speaks about drone use and the targeted killing program. Paraphrasing Obama: "My most sacred duty is to keep Americans safe...drones are one tool that we use. Our criteria for using them is very tight and very strict...has to be a target authorized by our laws, a threat that is serious and not speculative, has to be a situation where we can't capture the individual before they move forward on some plot against the United States...we have to be very careful about avoiding civilian casualties...as President I'm ultimately responsible for the decisions made by the Administration, and we abide by rule of law and due process."
That last bit seems incongruous with a program in which the administration decides who to place and methodically cross off a "kill list(s)." But remember - according to a May NYT artilce, the Justice Department arleady decided that internal Executive Branch deliberations satisfy the right to due process. So, in Obama's view, there's no contradictino between targeted killing and due process.
Obama then speaks on targeting Americans: "No dobut that when an American has decided to affiliate himself with Al Qaeda and target Americans, there is a legal justification for us to stop that." Obama further then explains that drones aren't the only course for stopping terrorism: "Our most powerful long-term tool is to live up to our values."
8:19 pm: CNN now interviews Romney on Syria. Again, paraphrasing: "We must shape events, not be at the mercy of events. We can work with the Saudis and the Turks and other friends in the region to identify reasonable moderate voices in Syria that are not jihadists. We can try to coalesce those groups and provide weapons...work to ensure what comes after Bashar al Assad is not more of the same."
Romney comes off authoritative in the exchange and contrasts his proactive approach with Obama's thumb-twiddling, but of course Romney's plan is much easier spoken than accomplished. We might be able to ship weapons to our carefully selected favorites, but we have no control over who they then share or sell those weapons too. Small arm have a durable "velocity" if you will (think velocity of money from Econ 101). No one wants to repeat Afghanistan in the 1980s, or even Libya from 2011 (see Mali).
8:24 pm: The interview with Romney continues, this time on Iran. In short: the sanctions are working, we must deny Iran the capability to obtain a nuclear weapon, there is a long time left before military action is needed, and it may not ever be needed. This sounds a lot like Obama's position. It will be interesting to see if Romney tries to again spin his position as tougher on Iran than Obama's during the debate. Also important to note that the timeline on Iran achieving nucleaar capability is shorter than obtaining nuclear weapons.
8:53 pm: As Bob Schieffer makes soome opening remarks ("be quite as mice!"), here's hoping we get to hear both candidates talk about foreign policy rather than spend half the night bickering about when the CIA switched its assessment from "protests" to "no protests" or act shocked that a freelance jouranlist stringing for WaPo can get access to Benghazi faster than an official U.S. delegation.
9:02 pm: Obama opens with a power elbow-grasp on the handshake. Schieffer opens with the Cuba Missile crisis...
9:05 pm: Romney comes out strong talking about not being able to kill our way out of the Al Qaeda mess, helping Islamic countries, takes killing OBL off the table by congratulating Obama, and even name-drops Mali. Wow. Great start.
9:10 pm: Obama talks onLibyaat length despite Romney passing on the opportunity to take him to task on it. He then defends his actions onLibya. Accuses Romney’s strategy of being all over the map but skips the details.
Romney says kill the bad guys but get the Muslim World to reject extremism on its own. Then references a Muslim scholar conference that came up with talking points on combating extremism. Then mentionsMaliagain, but fails to connect it to Libay.
Obama deadpans: “I’m glad you recognize Al Qaeda’s a threat,” then goes for the zinger on Romney saying “Russiabeing the greatest threat toAmerica.” Points out Romney’s inconsistency onIraq, then goes through a laundry list of Romney’s flip-flops, doubletalk, and general lack of any consistent policy. Says our allies need a strong leader who knows what he believes. Good retort.
9:17 pm: Now on to Syria. Obama doesn't want heavy weapons to get in the wrong hands. Romeny talks about a "Council of Elrond" style non-jihadi coalition we must arm which will magically not give its weapons to jihadi allies of convenience against Assad. Also says we shouldn't get involved military in Syria. Experience tells me that giving weapons to feedom fighters in a civil war against a government backed by Russia can inevitably involve military action (once again - see Afghanistan).
Obama finally addresses the difference between the Libya scenario and the Syrian situation. Romney then describes taking a non-military leading role in arming and backing a Syrian through the leadership of a regional coalition. Sounds an awful lot like "leading from behind" to me.
9:28 pm: On to America's role in the world....
Romney wants to promote human rights, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections, and a strong American economy. The economy is resonating well with CNN's squiggly line thing.
Romney then trots out the "Obama didn't help the Iranian Green Revolution" zinger, but ignores that public American support is the fastest way to undermine an Iranian revolution.
9:33 pm: Now back to the economy talking points, but in a surprising twist Romney is the first to talk about igoring engagement with the Latin American economy by focusing so much on China (a subtle jab at Obama's poorly-define "Asian Pivot").
...and Obama brings it back to capital gains tax policy. And talks about math and science teacher hires growing small business, lins that to U.S. long-term copetitiveness. Bob Schieffer: "Let me get back to foreign policy..." *ZING!*
9:37 pm: Bob Schieffer: where are you getting the money for military expansion? Romney: come on our website. Will get rid of a "series of programs."
9:40 pm: Obama: "we spend more on the military than the next ten countries combined. I worked with our Chiefs of Staff to figure out what we need to keep our country safe and fund that." Then goes back to the fuzzy math on Romney's budget defecit plan that, however ture, we've been hearing since debate number one.
Romney: we need ships. We need more F-35s. I won't cut our military budget despite no longer fighting the Iraq war pulling out of Afghanistan in 2014.
Obama: Romney says don't have enought ships. Well, we no longer have horses and bayonnettes either. My focus is on capabilities, not numbers of ships.
9:45 pm: Schieffer: If Israel is attacked, will you consider that an attack on the U.S.?
Obama: "I'll stand with Israel and my sanctions on Iran are crippling their economy, it's worse than their war with Iraq 20 years ago. We can't afford a nuclear arms race in the most unstable region in the world. Iran can now take the diplomatic route or face a united world" (a world that Obama's "apology tour" helped re-unite with the U.S.).
Romney: "I want to underscore the same point the president made....(womp womp - Romney was smirking back when he thought Obama would dance around the backing Israel question). With regards to Iran, I called for the sanctions first and I'd have put them in place earlier and make them tougher. I would then diplomatically isolate Ahmadenijad by indicting for incitement to genocide (!). Of course, a military action is a last resort (after I've taken diplomatic options off the table - see the previous sentence."
Obama denies the secret talks with Iran report. Says we won't let negotiations with Iran carry on indefinitely.
9:55 pm: Romney: The sanctions aren't tough enough. Iran saw weakness when they expected to find American strength. Obama went on an apology tour going to nations in the Middle East criticizing America.
Obama: Nothing Romney just said is true. The apology tour is a whopper. While we were coordinating international efforts on sanctions (what Romney terms an apology tour...off to a good start Obama...) you were investing in China (*facepalm*).
Romney says we're four years closer to an Iranian bomb because we've wasted the past four yeasr (yeah, wasted them implementing the sanctions you just called for).
Afer Romney criticizes Obama for not going to Israel: Obama says, "My first trip was to visit the troops in Afghanistan. When I later went to Israel I didn't attend fundraisers or take donations, I visited the Holocaust Museum. I then funded the Iron Dome system (which defends Israel against rockets fired from Gaza).
10:00 pm: Now Romney talks about turmoil with Israel evidenced by....letters from US Senators.
Obama now describes Romney's position on Afghanistan: "I'm for the timeline although it depends" (accurate).
Obama now pulls out the campaign anecdote of all compaign anecdotes: "a woman (Payton) told me that killing Osama gave her closure with losing her husband on 9/11."
10:05 pm: Now to Afghanistan...
Romney: says he'll pull the troops out in 2014 and that the surge has been *successful* (I have no idea why Romney praised Obama's surge here when he could have criticized it). Then he goes on to Pakistan, a good move, but brings up the obviously salient point that "they'll soon have more nukes than Great Britain."
Obama addresses the topic by talking about transition to Afghan responsibility for their security, then addresses the need to take care of the vererans coming home.
10:10 pm: Now to Pakistan...
Romney: we shouldn't diplomatically divorce Pakistan. Why? Because they have lot's of nuclear weapons, an authoritarian governemnt with religious extremist elements, and terrorists. (Which is incidentally a good case for diplomatic engagment with Iran).
Romney then says we need a more comprehensive strategy to move the world away from Islamic terrorism. A salient point, but doesn't provide any specifics on what this plan would look like.
10:15 pm: Rise of China and future challenges to America:
Obama on the greatest future threat to the U.S.: terrorist networks. On China: it's a competitor but a potential partner if they play by the rules. Then goes through his efforts to make the U.S. more competitive with cheap Chinese tires and steel. Aaaaaand back to education promotion and Romney's budget.
Romney: the greatest national security threat is a nuclear Iran. On China: they want a free and open world and we can be a partner with China. We can work and colloborate with them if they can be responsible. Then tries to argue that the U.S. (Obama) cutting military strenght will dissuade China from engaging econoically with the U.S. Why? Because they won't think we're strong.
Romney then brings up solid points about Chinese theft of American patents and technology through cyber crimes. In response to the criticism that his labeling China a currency manipulator would start a trade war, he points out that this is ulikely as China has the most to lose from a trade war.
P.S. If you had "counterfeit valves" on your debate drinking game card, DRINK!
10:22 pm: In the foreign policy debate, now back to domestic auto policy. Romney says government investment doens't equal research (has Romney ever seen a Tesla car? Those things are sweet). Obama then uses his rebuttal time to...once again tell Romney he's flip-flopped on his Detroit position and the tax code. Romney begins talking about negative economic indicators under Obama. Left unaddressed in all of this, with under two minutes to go: U.S. kinetic operations in Somalia, Yemen...
Romney then gives a shoutout to....Appleton, Wisconsin.
10:29 pm: Heard at my debate watch: "did Schieffer die?"
10:30 pm: Closing Statements:
Obama: We'll build a strong military, I will fight for you, and I will listen to you. (these comments build on the personal outreach efforts of his presidency, such as the Google Hangout and the Reddit AMA).
Romney: I want peace, Obama's polcies are bad for the economy. I can work across the aisle. This nation is the hope of the Earth. We need strong leadership and I'd like to be that leader. Tonight I ask for your vote. (after sounding like he's just throwing out phrases, Romney closes strong with an earnest, genuine request for your vote).