As the incumbent commander-in-chief, Obama has clearly defined foreign policy positions, successes and failures. The president came into the debate tonight confident in his record and eager to defend it. Romney had the dual task of showing that he could fit the role of C-I-C and establishing a clear distinction on the issues.
Both candidates overdid the jingoist bravado that has become a hallmark of American foreign policy, but Romney failed to show that his positions were anything other than a restatement of Obama's. Obama provided a strong defense of his policies and repeatedly slammed Romney for "airbrushing history" or what we all call lying!
More than half the debate focused on the (broader) Middle East: Egypt, Libya, Syria, Israel, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both candidates projected strength to the point of American essentialism, which unfortunately has become a litmus test of foreign policy debates in the US. Romney repeatedly described America as a force for peace in the world, which falls on deaf ears here in the Middle East where America is known for 60 years of near constant warmaking.
On the issues, the candidates rarely offered stark differences. Romney agreed on Obama's reaction to the uprising in Egypt, to sanctions on Iran, to a strong but non-military approach to Syria, to supporting Israel in the case of an attack. He tried to draw a distinction on supportig military spending, but Obama cut the legs out of that argument with his sarcastic "horses and bayonets" comment.
On Israel, both candidates pandered like their lives depended on it though Romney did it without maintaining any sort of dignity. He claimed Iranian president Ahmadinejad should be charged with genocide for his anti-Semitic rhetoric. This is sure to drum up support among pro-Israel hawks, but it demonstrates a glaring lack of understanding of the tools of international diplomacy.
Many of the topics were also related back to domestic issues: the economy, the budget and education policy. China got a few minutes at the end, but the thrust of the debate was America's position in the world and Middle East policy. Romney endorsed most of Obama's positions and on those issues where there was disagreement, he came off as pandering or hesitant.
Unfortunately, the debate glossed over most of the important foreign policy topics of the day and pandered to the American voter who just wants to hear that America's the strongest and doggone greatest country the world has ever known. When that's the case, we all lose.
For real-time analysis of the debate, and coverage as it went down, see here.