By Dan Robinson
The third and final U.S. presidential debate takes place Monday in Boca Raton, Florida, devoted entirely to foreign policy. It remains to be seen what impact it will have on voter assessments of President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney less than three weeks before the U.S. election.
In their first two debates, both men sparred over the Middle East, the killing of Americans in Libya, the U.S. response to Syria’s civil war, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and trade with China.
Their final encounter could bring a somewhat deeper examinations of these issues. For President Obama, a key question is whether his perceived advantage on national security matters will bring any more strength in polling numbers.
Dewey Clayton, professor of political science at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, says questions about how President Obama has handled Libya and Syria have given Romney an opening.
“There is clearly plenty of fodder out here to have a spirited debate on foreign policy, I think clearly it will give both candidates an opportunity to talk about how they may do things differently, whether it is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan or whether it is just clearly talking about maintaining a strong national defense,” said Clayton.
On Libya, Romney has been on the attack, asserting that the president has mishandled events there and in the broader Middle East.
“There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack. And there was no demonstration involved, it was a terrorist attack and it took a long time for that to be told to the American people,” said Romney at the second presidential debate at New York’s Hofstra University.
Some analysts say Americans, and people in other countries, have been left wondering how Mitt Romney’s approach would differ from President Obama on, for example, Iran’s nuclear program or the U.S. response to the Arab Spring.
Danielle Pletka, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
“I think for outsiders who are trying to get a grip on either what does the next four years mean for us if Barack Obama is re-elected, what does the next four years mean for us if Mitt Romney is elected, you’re not quite sure where it’s going,” Pletka said.
Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says each candidate constructed a narrative about the Middle East: Governor Romney warning about American weakness, President Obama emphasizing closure of an earlier chapter of U.S. policy.
Cofman suggests this potential negative side effect.
“The notion of trying to use events in the Middle East to build a narrative that is helpful to your election campaign, might well be dismaying to people living in the region, to see events on the ground that are of such magnitude for Arab citizens treated as, in essence, a political football in our election campaign,” Cofman explained.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, points to what he calls a bigger question hanging over each side’s arguments.
“There is a bigger question here about what is the role of U.S. leadership post-Arab Spring and how do others in the region perceive that leadership,” said Hamid.
On the campaign trail, President Obama emphasizes accomplishments such as ending the U.S military role in Iraq, drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, eliminating Osama bin-Laden, and decimating al-Qaida’s leadership.
Governor Romney says Obama’s Middle East policy is “unraveling”, while on other issues such as trade relations with China he pledges to get tougher than the president has been.
Daniel Serwer, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says the most serious foreign policy discussion may not come until after the election.
“The level of generality and the level of polarization don’t lend themselves to a lot of serious discussion,” said Serwer. “In an odd sort of way, you see that in the Romney stance, because Romney while criticizing the administration on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on Iran has put forward very few distinct proposals on those subjects and the reason for that is it is hard to think up better things to do.”
While the American public remains primarily focused on the economy and job creation, opinion surveys suggest Mitt Romney may have chipped away somewhat at President Obama’s dominance on national security and foreign policy issues.
A CNN poll after the second debate showed Obama leading Governor Romney 49 to 47 percent on the question of ability to handle foreign affairs.