Originally Published 2012-10-25 00:00:00 Published on Oct 25, 2012
The US Presidential debates might not change the election result, but the good thing is that the world now knows what exactly a Romney Presidency would look like from a foreign policy point of view and what Obama is likely to do if he wins a second term -with little substantial difference in their foreign policy positions.
Little to choose between the candidates in the third debate
If the round one of the US Presidential debates went to Mitt Romney and the round two to President Barack Obama, then third round also seems to have gone to Obama.

With just two weeks left for the Election Day and polls showing an increasingly tight race, the third of the presidential debates took place on Monday at Florida. The focus of this debate was on foreign policy. While Romney was clearly the winner in the first debate on the economy (helped by a surprisingly subdued Obama), President Obama redeemed himself in the second debate. President Obama started with a clear advantage in the third debate - having moved to the centrist position on foreign policy and having proved himself as a commander-in-chief who can take tough decisions. Polls after polls before the debate also showed that voters felt Obama had an advantage going into this debate and the president played true to form.

This election has not been about foreign policy. But Americans do want to know each candidate's stance on foreign policy and whether the candidate can be trusted as a commander in chief of US armed forces. As Romney and Obama debated America's place in the world, each candidate attempted to portray the other as an unreliable commander in chief.

President Obama attempted to keep Romney on the defensive, arguing that Romney does not know as much about foreign policy as he does, an aim in which he seems to have succeeded to some extent. Obama tried to portray Romney as being out of date and highlighted Romney's flip-flops on foreign policy issues over the years-on Iraq, on who the country's biggest adversary is (Russia or Al Qaeda?), on Afghanistan and on Osama bin Laden. He pointed out that as a candidate in 2008, Romney had said that he would not move heaven and earth to get Osama bin Laden though he now says that the call that Obama made was one which any President would have taken. He also brought up Romney's support for the Iraq war. At times, he was downright sarcastic with his opponent, particularly while responding to Romney's comment about the US navy being smaller than in 1917: "You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines."

Romney aimed to show that Obama has showed a lack of leadership and of doing little to increase America's influence in the world: "nowhere in the world is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago". But Romney had to do a tricky balancing act to do as most of his positions are similar to Obama's. The debate shows that there really is not much difference in Obama's and Romney's foreign policy positions-the difference is only in the degree of emphasis on each issue. For instance, both do not want Iran to get the nuclear bomb. Both agree on sanctions though Romney said he would have applied tougher sanctions and sooner. On Syria, both agreed on the inadvisability of arming the opposition groups for fear that the arms would end up in the wrong hands. Unlike in the past, Romney did not attack the President over the assassination of the US ambassador in Libya. Their positions seemed similar on almost every other issue like the use of drones, the drawdown from Afghanistan, etc. Romney and Obama re-asserted that they would stand by Israel if it is attacked. Romney agreed with the President's use of drones saying that "we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends". On Afghanistan, Romney declared that as President he would also stand by the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of troops.

Much of the debate revolved around the Middle East and China, areas which will certainly throw up challenges for the next President. Surprisingly, the Euro zone crisis failed to get even mentioned. With global power equations changing with the rise of new powers like China and India, one would have thought some part of the debate would be devoted to how the US is going to adapt to this change. But again, there was little on this from either candidate.

Romney was clearly trying to project himself as a moderate leader whom Americans can trust not to get dragged into more overseas commitments. While congratulating Obama on the Osama bin Laden raid, Romney said "we can't kill our way out of this mess". On the issue of radical violence, he said "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical violent extremism." He further said that the US should help the Muslim world overcome extremism by helping them develop economically through foreign aid and investments from the US and its friends, providing better education, promoting gender equality and the rule of law and helping these nations "create civil societies".

He also did not repeat his claim of Russia being America's "number one" geopolitical foe though he reasserted that he would label China a currency manipulator on his first day as President. Even on Pakistan, which he says has not behaved like an ally, he said that the US cannot walk away from the country and "we're going to have to remain helpful in encouraging Pakistan to move towards a - a more stable government and - and rebuild a relationship with us." Romney said that an attack on Iran would be a last resort and made peace a central part of his closing speech. Romney seems to want to draw a distance between George W Bush and himself, trying to portray himself as someone who will not go to war recklessly. On the negative side for Romney was his mistake in saying that Syria is Iran's "outlet to the sea"-this is factually incorrect as Iran does not share a border with Syria and has a large coastline.

Some important domestic issues also were discussed. In fact, both candidates kept trying to bring the focus back on the economy-the decisive factor in this election - and their plans for the economy and played up the domestic angles of their foreign policy. A strong America, Romney said, must have a strong economy. "For us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong," he said. "And that begins with a strong economy here at home. Unfortunately, the economy is not stronger."Obama also talked about the economy and said his administration has ended the war in Iraq and put the U.S in a position to rebuild and devote to nation building at home.

CNN's post-debate poll shows that most voters feel that Obama did a better job than Romney in the debate. But more importantly, half of the respondents said that the debate will not have an impact on who they vote for, 25% said they were more likely to vote for Romney and 24% said they were more likely to vote for Obama. So the debate is unlikely to have much of an impact on the election outcome. Even though Romney is seen to have done worse than Obama in the last two debates, an ABC poll shows that people now feel that Romney can be Presidential and 37% of voters have a better opinion of him than they did before the debates. The debates, particularly the first one in which he virtually cornered Obama, have thus helped Romney more than Obama. Romney has been trying to shift to the centre after winning the Republican nomination in the last two debates and this debate served to emphasise this.

Thus, while the debates might not change the election result, the good thing is that the world now knows what exactly a Romney Presidency would look like from a foreign policy point of view and what Obama is likely to do if he wins a second term-there is going to be little substantial difference in their foreign policy positions.

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