Obama, Romney home in on foreign policy debate


Tonight’s crucial debate could prove to be a tie-breaker, writes L ARA MARLOWEin Boca Raton, Florida

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, will face one another for their third and final debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, tonight.

With the candidates virtually even in the polls and the election due two weeks from tomorrow, tonight’s debate could be a tie-breaker. If so, it will confound the common wisdom that foreign policy does not count in US elections.

Both candidates swear undying loyalty to US ally Israel, say Iran must not obtain nuclear weapons and that democracy should be fostered in the tumultuous Arab world. Both adhere to Nato’s 2014 deadline for ending the war in Afghanistan, and both criticise China promiscuously.

But despite the similarities, the result of the election will make a huge difference in the tone and substance of US foreign policy. Romney appears to set a lower threshold for military intervention in Iran, is more eager to arm rebels in Syria, and is less likely to revisit the frozen Israeli-Palestinian “peace process”. Obama wants to negotiate another arms treaty with Russia; Romney wants to increase spending for missile defence.

Until last month, Obama’s position on foreign policy appeared unassailable. He had ended the war in Iraq, set a timeline for ending the war in Afghanistan, and ordered the assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Romney’s foreign policy debut was rocky. He alarmed many by calling Russia “America’s number-one geopolitical foe”, offended Britain by questioning its preparedness for the Olympic Games and angered Arabs by attributing the disparity in Israeli and Palestinian standards of living to “cultural differences”.

Answering Romney’s criticism of the Obama administration’s handling of the killing of four Americans at the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, Obama’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said: “We’re not going to be lectured by someone who’s been an unmitigated disaster on foreign policy every time he’s dipped his toe in the foreign policy waters.”

Yet the attacks on American outposts in Libya and elsewhere gave heft to Romney’s claim that “our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them”.

Romney and his running mate, Paul Ryan, frequently refer to the “unravelling” of Obama’s foreign policy.

Romney and Obama are divided by a fundamentally different vision of the US’s role in the world.

Romney is nostalgic for that brief period between the fall of the Soviet Union and the atrocities of September 11th, 2001, when the US was the world’s undisputed “hyper-power”.

“I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country,” he told the Veterans of Foreign Wars last July. “I am not ashamed of American power.”

Romney often – and unjustifiably – accuses Obama of “apologising” for the US.

Romney is torn between rival groups of foreign policy advisers. Conservative realists, led by former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, are at odds with the neo-conservatives who dominated George W Bush’s term, chief among them former UN ambassador John Bolton.

At every rally, Romney repeats that the US must continue to maintain the strongest military in the world.

He promises to increase defence spending by several trillion dollars.

Voters often express the fear that Romney will drag the US into another Middle East war.

Obama says the US must “rebuild America here at home”. He sees multilateralism as an economic, as well as a diplomatic, necessity.

But when Obama believes vital US interests are at stake, he has not hesitated to act unilaterally in limited, targeted ways, for example in the killing of

bin Laden.

He categorically rejects, however, the possibility of more ground wars and messy occupations.

In the words of author and New York Times correspondent David Sanger, “Obama has made the case for an America that can no longer do it all. It must pick its fights.”

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