It was full of bluster and bickering, but the presidential debate on foreign policy Monday night also served to highlight many substantive differences between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney about America's role in the world and how to promote U.S. interests.
Obama was the aggressor, eager to confront Romney throughout and he took to the offensive frequently, as he did in the last debate on domestic issues. He started off by accusing the former Massachusetts governor of being wrong on many foreign policy issues, such as favoring the initial war in Iraq which Obama opposed. Obama said he has provided "strong and steady leadership" but Romney offers "wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."
Obama ended the debate by arguing that he inherited two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, record deficits and soaring unemployment, and under his leadership the wars are ending and the economy is on the mend. "Governor Romney wants to take us back to those policies" that failed, he said.
Romney tried to project an image of calm and reasonableness. He said "attacking me is not an agenda," and he argued that Obama's strategy in the Middle East has been "all over the map."
He ended the debate by focusing on the economy and jobs, arguing that Obama has failed as president, building up vast federal debts and failing to strengthen the economy. He promised to add 12 million new jobs if he wins the White House and said, "America is going to come back, and to have that happen we need a president who knows how to work across the aisle" with the opposition, which he pledged to do.
Romney said some believe that the nation's biggest national security issue is its weak economy and soaring deficits. He opposed cuts in the military budget, which he said would weaken the nation, and said he would save money elsewhere.
Romney said that, to be strong internationally, America needs to cut its deficit, and end economic policies that have left 23 million people out of work, including many new college graduates. Romney argued for his five-point economic plan: Make North America energy independent; increase trade, expand training programs and education; balance the budget, and "champion small business."
Obama also made sure to emphasize the economy, the issue that is uppermost in the minds of voters. He said he seeks to create jobs, including manufacturing jobs, and has been doing so. He endorsed more investment in technology, creating the best education system in the world, and developing more domestic energy resources. And he repeated his well-known support for having the rich pay more in taxes.
The two candidates sparred repeatedly over Middle East policy. Romney said he wants to both "go after the bad guys" and also obtain international cooperation to persuade the Muslim world to "reject extremism on its own." He endorsed a program of international assistance, encouraging education and expanding the rights of women, and preserving "the rule of law" in the Middle East. Instead, he said, there is a "rising tide of chaos," tumult, and brutality in the region, ranging from Libya to Egypt and Syria, and he said Obama has allowed the Iranian nuclear threat to get worse.
Romney congratulated Obama for ordering the mission that killed terrorist Osama bin Laden but said, "We can't kill our way out of this mess."
Internationally, Obama said he has demonstrated the right mix of cooperation, in working with other nations to pressure Iran into giving up its nuclear program, and strength, as shown in the mission he ordered that resulted in the death of bin Laden.
Both said they would support Israel if that country is attacked, and both said leaving Iran with a nuclear weapon is unacceptable.
Romney said Obama has been unable to defend U.S. interests in many parts of the world, and he said Obama has allowed China to become an unfair trading partner. Romney said Obama's weak trade politics have cost Americans jobs because of a flood of cheap products from China. He also said Israel has less reason to count on the Obama administration as a reliable ally.
Obama repeatedly said Romney was wrong in stating the facts, and vigorously argued that he has been fighting against unfair Chinese trade practices. He argued that Romney would blunder into such a harsh response that he could get the United States into a harmful trade war with Beijing. And Obama said he has kept the United States firmly in support of Israel.
It was on the issue of Afghanistan that each candidate ran the most political risk in the debate. Most Americans favor withdrawal of U.S. troops from a war that has now persisted for 12 years, longer than any other conflict in American history. Sixty per cent of Americans say the United States should remove its troops as soon as possible, while 35 per cent say the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation has "stabilized," according to the Pew Research Center.
Obama says he will keep his pledge to remove nearly all American forces in 2014, although U.S. officials say the administration may keep some troops there to fight terrorists and continue to train the Afghans. Obama said his goal is to make sure that government officials in Kabul take "responsibility for their own security" rather than leaving it to the United States. "After a decade of war, it's time to do some nation building back home," through the construction of roads and schools and giving military veterans jobs in those and other fields, the president said.
Romney countered that he also wants to remove U.S. troops but he would do so only if the U.S. military says the job is done and the country is stabilized.
Many of the looming questions in Afghanistan were not addressed in the debate, a 90-minute encounter held in Boca Raton, Fla. One of them is the role of Pakistan in stopping insurgents from moving across its border with Afghanistan, which remains a major problem.
The biggest risk for Romney was appearing like a "warmonger," especially in Afghanistan, Democratic strategists said. "Romney has a real vulnerability" if he comes across too much like President George W. Bush, who struck many Americans as too militaristic and unilateralist. "The public doesn't want to go back to the go-it alone style of George W. Bush," Democratic pollster Geoff Garin told me.
But GOP strategists say Obama ran a risk, too, of seeming to have allowed much of the world, especially the Middle East, to spin out of control.
But in their final sprint to Election Day, chances are that both candidates will quickly move past the foreign policy debate and focus on the economy, especially in the handful of battleground states that remain competitive, such as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Ohio.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.