The third and final presidential debate on Monday night will focus on foreign policy. What sorts of questions and issues can we expect to hear about?
There are a few things that I expect will be brought up by the moderator and by each candidate.
To begin with, Obama will have to defend his actions over the last four years; the increased number of drone strikes, the failure to follow through on his promise to close Guantanamo (although that could come under both domestic and foreign policy), and of course, the attacks on the Egyptian embassy and Libyan consulate and the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens, information management officer Sean Smith and two ex-Navy SEALs, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. Perhaps more than the details of the Libya attack itself, President Obama will have to answer questions regarding the changing story coming out of the White House and the State Department in the hours and days following the attacks. Contrary to what the president claimed at the town hall debate last week, he did use the “it was the movie” excuse starting about two days after the attack in Benghazi. If indeed, the initial assessment was that the Benghazi consulate was attacked, why did the Administration return later with “it was the movie” line? Then, during the debate President Obama said he took full responsibility for the mix-up in communications. This less than 24 hours after Secretary Hillary Clinton issued a statement saying that she took full responsibility. Now, some will say that of course, he should take responsibility, and yes, he should. He’s the boss. But he didn’t until pushed. That is not good leadership.
I also expect to hear about the troop draw downs/withdrawals from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Romney makes a good point when he says that advertising the leave date for our troops is asking for trouble. The Taliban and others, hearing a specific date, will simply slow or stop their activities and wait until the troops are gone and thus villagers are left with no protection. Once American troops are gone, they will simply renew their activities.
Finally, a report from The New York Times on Saturday that Iran has agreed to talks on nuclear weapons will likely be brought up. I would expect to hear Obama tout this as an achievement. However, conflicting reports are already appearing that suggest that the White House is denying reports of such talks. Iran is also dismissing the reports of talks. It is hard to know what is actually happening. Complicating the issue with Iran are the actions of Russia who supports Iran and who is helping to build nuclear reactors in that country. Putin has stated that he will not support any further sanctions on Iran.
The situation in Syria is escalating and beginning to involve Turkey directly; the potential for a regional war is increasing. In the last few weeks Turkey has grounded an Syrian passenger plane coming from Russia. Turkey claimed the plane was carrying military supplies to Damascus. In addition, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his rhetoric against Assad in response to Syrian mortar shells landing inside the Turkish border. One small positive note in all this is that Erdoğan does not appear to have a lot of domestic support for attacking Syria.
From Romney, I expect to see comments and points made about all of the above. I also expect and want to see some more specific discussion of his plans for a Romney foreign policy. Given the current volatility in foreign policy, those in the Obama camp arguing that Romney has given no specifics have a point. He will need to come up with some points for the major issues facing the United States right now.
At a speech at Virginia Military Institute on October 8, Romney noted that the attacks on American embassies and the consulate in Benghazi were “…expressions of a larger struggle that is playing out across the broader Middle East.” He went on to say that while the attacks were not the fault of the President, the duty to respond appropriately does lie with the president. “…[I]t is the responsibility of our President to use America’s great power to shape history—not to lead from behind, leaving our destiny at the mercy of events.” Presumably, Governor Romney will provide more details as to how he would have responded differently than President Obama.
In the same speech, Romney mentioned the increasingly tense and strained relationship between the United States and Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unequivocally stated that Israel will defend itself against any threat emanating from Iran. Romney has said that a nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable, but again, no specifics on how he would insure that. In the VMI speech, Romney gave hints of the foreign policy that would likely be pursued by a Romney Administration; restoring defense budget cuts, creating a comprehensive trade policy in the region and with individual states, tightening sanctions on Iran and adding new ones, a permanent naval presence in the Gulf in the form of a carrier battle group, and restoring relations with Israel were all listed as actions Romney would take as President. In addition, Romney indicated his support for the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. The speech at VMI is perhaps the most comprehensive outline of Romney’s foreign policy yet and I expect to hear these points brought up on Monday.
Monday’s debate will be important for Obama because he will have to defend actions he has appeared reluctant to discuss in detail. And, that reluctance does not stem from revealing classified information (he’s done that before with no problems). It stems from that fact that his Administration has not done well and that’s hard to deal with when you billed yourself as the one who will bring peace to the Middle East as Obama did in 2008. Obama will have to move beyond “Osama bin Laden is dead” as the major accomplishment of the last four years and be prepared to defend the remaining actions and inactions of his policies. Romney will have to give more specifics and details regarding how he will handle world affairs in general and the situation in the Middle East in particular moving forward.