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May 28, 2015

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The final debate

Newspapers from around the country analyze the meeting focused on foreign policy

Advantage: Obama

From an editorial in The New York Times:

Mitt Romney has nothing really coherent or substantive to say about domestic policy, but at least he can sound energetic and confident about it. On foreign policy, the subject of Monday night’s final presidential debate, he had little coherent to say and often sounded lost. That’s because he has no original ideas of substance on most world issues, including Syria, Iran and Afghanistan.

During the debate, on issue after issue, Romney sounded as if he had read the boldfaced headings in a briefing book — or a freshman global history textbook — and had not gone much further than that. ...

At other times, he announced that he had a “strategy” for the Middle East, particularly Iran and Syria, and really for the whole world, but gave no clue what it would be — much like his claim that he has a plan to create 12 million jobs and balance the budget while also cutting taxes but will not say what it is. At his worst, Romney sounded like a beauty pageant contestant groping for an answer to the final question. “We want a peaceful planet,” he said. “We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war.”

He added that the United States “didn’t ask for” the mantle of global leadership but was willing to wear it. We wonder what Ronald Reagan would have thought of that.

Romney’s problem is that he does not actually have any real ideas on foreign policy beyond what President Barack Obama has done, or plans to do. ...

Obama hit Romney hard on his ever-shifting positions on world affairs, including comments he made in 2008 disparaging the idea that killing Osama bin Laden should be a priority. “You said we should ask Pakistan for permission,” Obama said. “If we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten it.”

Romney’s closing statement summed it all up. He said almost nothing about foreign policy. He moved back to his comfort zone: cheerfully delivered disinformation about domestic policy.

Advantage: Romney

From an editorial in the Dallas Morning News:

The 2012 presidential race understandably has focused on the economy and the ways in which each candidate would rejuvenate it. The Dallas Morning News recommends Mitt Romney for president largely on the strength of this issue: His focus on tax reform and the overhaul of entitlement programs is crucial for America’s domestic challenges, particularly reducing the national debt.

Likewise, an improved financial picture will bolster America’s standing in the world. As Henry Kissinger put it, a strong foreign policy is predicated upon a healthy domestic economy.

Only as America’s economy improves will Washington gain strength in dealing politically, financially and, yes, militarily with foreign challenges.

Those challenges — Afghanistan, Libya, Iran, China and Iraq — were among the topics raised in Monday’s mostly civil debate, one in which both candidates put a high priority on appearing presidential. ...

Some may wonder why the candidates went far afield into economic issues. But Romney rightly kept making the link between domestic and foreign policies, including on international trade. He did a good job explaining how expanding markets in regions such as Latin America can help our home front. The president has been a weak leader on the trade issue; America must work more closely within the global economy so we can avert another international collapse.

The differences between the two candidates on foreign policy are less stark than with domestic issues. But in their final debate, Romney effectively made the case that America can maintain a lead role on the global stage only if it gets its economic house in order.

Advantage: It’s a draw

From an editorial in the Kansas City Star:

The final 2012 presidential debate wound to a close with another “new” Mitt Romney appearing, this one pushing a “peace” agenda, sounding conciliatory and endorsing much of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy positions.

Obama effectively emphasized his experience in improving world relations and his record of ending the war in Iraq, preparing for the withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan and supporting many nations convulsed by revolutions in the Arab Spring.

Romney, as the challenger with no foreign policy experience, had no major gaffes. He appeared strongest when he was off foreign policy, hitting home on high unemployment, underemployment and rising poverty. Both men strayed from the foreign policy topic repeatedly, returning to the economy issue and their stump speeches.

Obama, however, hit hard at the Romney plan to increase military spending. Romney offered little defense of what appears excessive. And Obama deflated Romney’s criticism of fewer naval ships, chiding his opponent that warfare has changed over time, with fewer bayonets, too.

Little time was spent on drone attacks, a major feature of the Obama administration’s pursuit of terrorists and one worthy of more discussion.

With the election close, the debate likely didn’t push either into clear “winner” territory.

Romney escaped without raising fears of looking like a gunslinging president. Obama continued to appear thoughtful and reasonable, and that should help him continue to rebuild momentum that he lost after his lackluster first debate.

Advantage: It’s a draw

From an editorial in the Chicago Tribune:

Before President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney debated, a new Washington Post/ABC poll showed how treacherous a world this is — for candidates. Obama’s once-commanding lead over Romney on foreign affairs had dropped to 3 percentage points (49-46). His lead on handling terrorism was 1 point (47-46). His advantage as commander-in-chief? Also thin (48-45).

The findings, in line with other surveys, made this another crucial debate in a series like none before it: Either man could emerge from this near-tie.

Those who thought Romney would look more belligerent than knowledgeable saw none of that. But they also saw a president who projected confidence in his management of the U.S. role in world affairs. At several points, the challenger didn’t challenge: He didn’t draw the huge distinctions with Obama that he has on economic issues at home. On topics from Afghanistan to Pakistan to China to the use of drones, the two offered consonant themes. ...

A discussion on America’s global role separated the candidates ... a bit. Romney essentially argued that by avoiding stronger leadership roles, the United States risks being buffeted by events rather than molding them: “Nowhere in the world is America’s influence stronger than it was four years ago.” But Romney had trouble spelling out by what steps he would more forcefully assert U.S. leadership. Obama challenged Romney’s credibility — “I know you haven’t been in a position to execute foreign policy” — a reminder that only one of these men has had the responsibility for the last four years of representing this nation to the world and protecting this nation from harm. ...

This magnificent series of debates ended with agreeability and relative calm: two candidates, assuring Americans that each of them would be careful about extending U.S. military might around the world. Obama and Romney wanted to convey that each would avoid blundering into new wars. Both made convincing cases.

Advantage: Obama

From an editorial in the Los Angeles Times:

Monday’s presidential debate featured a forceful and articulate defense of Obama’s foreign policy. That was no surprise. What was surprising was that it came from Romney.

That seemed to annoy the president — who was prepared to rebut his opponent’s previous, more bellicose pronouncements. But the ever-shifting Republican nominee tacked even closer to the moderate middle than he did in the debate devoted to economic policy.

Once Romney intimated that he might keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past NATO’s 2014 deadline. No more. Now he agrees with Obama that it is feasible to transfer combat responsibilities to the Afghans by that point. On Iran, Romney emphasized economic sanctions rather than the threat of a military attack, effectively endorsing Obama’s approach. On Syria, Romney disappointed some of his neoconservative supporters by forswearing direct U.S. military intervention or the establishment of a no-fly zone. There was no call for returning U.S. forces to Iraq, though Romney continued to accuse Obama of bungling negotiations aimed at keeping a small residual force there ...

Yes, there were nuances of difference. Obama says the United States won’t allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon while Romney described the red line as “nuclear capability.” And Romney dusted off his canard that the president had conducted an “apology tour” through the Middle East. To be clear: Obama has not apologized for American influence; every time Romney says otherwise, he reinforces the many reasons to distrust his honesty.

Even Romney’s rhetoric was less blustery in the debate than it has been on the campaign trail. A viewer who hadn’t tuned into the campaign before Monday night might have wondered what all the shouting was about. Both candidates support withdrawal from Afghanistan, a careful courtship of Syrian opposition forces, the continued targeting of suspected terrorists by drones, and the leveraging of military aid to induce Egypt and other nations where Islamists are ascendant to respect the rights of women and religious minorities. Both want to engage China in trade but press it to play fair.

If Romney believes in a centrist foreign policy, which he hadn’t until Monday night, it would argue for his candidacy. But if that vision is attractive — and it is — why not stick with the president who is already pursuing it?

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