Clash over US foreign policy
The third and last presidential debate of the US election, held last Monday, focused on foreign policy. President Barack Obama won the debate, but his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, did not commit any gaffes, looked presidential and tried to portray himself as a man of peace who would adopt a centrist-oriented foreign policy.
Romney has had the momentum lately, ever since he dominated the first presidential debate, (both candidates performed well in the second debate, although Obama probably had a slight edge), and he did a reasonable job in Monday’s debate of changing his image of a warmonger who would revert to a neo-conservative foreign policy, which many right-wing Republicans are keen on.
Considering that the election is going to be close – Romney is now leading in a number of important swing states – the Republican candidate can be reasonably pleased with his latest debate performance.
I doubt he lost any support among voters, even though Obama was the better of the two, and he might have actually won some support among people who were considering voting for him because of his economic policies but were reluctant to do so because they feared he would adopt a hawkish right-wing foreign policy.
It remains to be seen just what type of foreign policy a Romney presidency would adopt should he win the election. In various instances during the campaign, especially in the Republican primaries, Romney adopted a hardline – and inconsistent – approach towards Obama’s foreign policy record and has, on a number of occasions (including in the third debate) accused the President of ‘apologising’ to the Muslim world during his famous Cairo speech. Obama called this claim the “biggest whopper” of the campaign.
Monday’s debate was very civil without any knockout blows, although Obama’s response to Romney’s criticism that the US Navy had fewer ships than in 1916 – namely that “We also have fewer horses and bayonets than we did in 1916” – came close to a knockout blow.
Obama suggested that Romney’s world view was obsolete, adding: “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
Obama and Romney discussed the Arab Spring, the al-Qaeda threat, Iran, Israel and China. Proof of how the September 11 attacks still dominate US foreign policy was the fact that Mali – where a group linked to al-Qaeda has taken control of the northern part of the country – was mentioned several times in the debate, yet there was no mention of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Nato, Europe, the eurozone crisis, sub-Saharan Africa, Canada or Japan.
Obama did a reasonable job of portraying Romney as a candidate who lacked the consistency to be President and highlighted his previous support for a continued troop presence in Iraq, his opposition to nuclear treaties with Russia and his changing policy on when US troops should leave Afghanistan.
“I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy but every time you’ve offered an opinion you’ve been wrong,” Obama told Romney.
Romney accused Obama of allowing a “rising tide of chaos” to sweep the Middle East, while congratulating the President “on taking out Osama bin Laden and taking on the leadership of al-Qaeda”. In an attempt to distance himself from the Republican Party’s more hawkish elements, Romney added: “But we can’t kill our way out of this. We must have a comprehensive strategy.”
Obama’s response was that he was glad his opponent had recognised the threat posed by al-Qaeda but reminded voters that Romney had previously labelled Russia the number one geopolitical foe of the US, and not al-Qaeda.
Later in the debate the President accused Romney of wanting to take the country back to the 1980s as far as foreign policy was concerned. Obama also said Romney believed in social policies of the 1950s and economic policies of the 1920s.
Romney stressed that “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran”, although he gave the impression that he would support military action against Teheran only as a last resort.
He accused Obama of not being supportive enough of America’s ally Israel, which the President has not visited since taking office four years ago. This accusation probably earned Romney some votes, especially from voters in the swing state of Florida, where the debate was held, and which has a sizeable Jewish community.
Both candidates declared, however, they would defend Israel if it had to be attacked by Iran, and both vowed to pursue tough policies against Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
They also both opposed military intervention in Syria, although Romney said it was time to arm those Syrian rebels who share the same values of the US. Obama did not go so far on this issue, even though some media reports have indicated that the US is already arming some factions within the Syrian rebel movement.
China also featured in the debate, with Romney stating that on day one as President he would declare the country a ‘currency manipulator’.
He said in the debate: “On day one, I will label them a currency manipulator, which allows us to apply tariffs where they’re taking jobs. They’re stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.”
Such a policy by Romney, of course, might lead to a trade war between China and the US, which is hardly an ideal development, but such talk always sounds good in an election.
Obama also appeared to adopt a tough line towards China, calling the giant power an “adversary”, and claiming to have taken more punitive action against China than George W. Bush took in two terms.
Perhaps Romney’s strongest point in the debate was when he said he considered a nuclear-armed Iran as the greatest threat to US security, as well as the threat from al-Qaeda terrorism – which had been singled out in the debate by Obama as the main threat to US security.