It was the me-too debate on Monday night.
President Obama and Mitt Romney came together to talk about foreign policy, and as Obama outlined his approach to conflicts in Syria, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere, Romney piped in with his version of me, too.
Romney has faulted Obama’s foreign policy in a number of areas, but his disagreements Monday were overshadowed by the ways he has accepted Obama’s stewardship of the national interest. Obama, on the other hand, was not shy about pointing out the inconsistencies in the policies Romney has enunciated in recent months, which Obama characterized as “all over the map.”
One area where Romney tried to score points against Obama was on Obama’s chilly relations with Israel. He pointed out that on Obama’s first foreign trip as president he went to Egypt, Turkey and Iraq on what Romney called an “apology tour.” But Obama did not stop in Israel, which, Romney said, was “noticed” by Israel’s enemies.
Obama was prepared. He said that on his trip abroad as a presidential candidate in 2008, he paid a visit to our troops. And then when he stopped in Israel he made sure he went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and research center. He also went to an Israeli border town to see where Palestinian missiles had rained down. Obama was not going to be outdone by Romney as a friend of Israel.
In other areas, Romney praised Obama’s policies. He congratulated him for killing Osama bin Laden and degrading al-Qaida. He outlined a policy on the Syrian civil war that was virtually identical to Obama’s. He praised Obama’s involvement in the Libyan conflict that ended the reign of Moammar Gadhafi. He got in line with Obama’s policy on declaring a definitive time for bringing our troops out of Afghanistan. He underscored the importance of the tough sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and our allies against Iran. Romney and Obama both pledged that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon in the next four years.
Romney sought to focus attention on the chaos and “tumult” that has beset the Middle East, as if Obama is to blame for it. And yet he had no answer to the civil war in Syria any different from Obama’s, which was to support the rebels whom we deem reliable, without involving the U.S. military. He criticized Obama for being slow to voice support for Iranian protesters three years ago, a fair criticism, though for most voters the poor outcome of the so-called Green Revolution is probably not a top-tier issue.
The larger critique that Romney was trying to mount was that Obama had been weak in responding to challenges abroad, but Obama’s manner during the debate demonstrated command of the issues and strength of conviction that blunted Romney’s criticism. In turn, Obama tried to portray Romney as inconsistent and unreliable, a charge that Romney had trouble countering.
Romney sought to show that Obama had made the United States weaker militarily, saying the U.S. Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1917. Obama was ready with one of the best comebacks of the three debates. We also have fewer horses and bayonets, he said, suggesting that Romney did not know how the military functions.
Both candidates repeatedly turned the debate to domestic issues to show that their opponent’s economic policies would be damaging to the nation’s prospects overseas for the next four years. Romney made little headway Monday in establishing his credibility on foreign policy, which is why he sought refuge in his criticism of the economic travails we have suffered in the past four years.
Obama had an all-encompassing comeback that touched on the whole range of issues addressed in the three debates. He said Romney wanted to return our foreign policy to the 1980s, our social policy to the 1950s and our economic policy to the 1920s.
There are two weeks for the two candidates to hammer home their message for the electorate. We can expect whirlwind tours of battleground states, including New Hampshire, and blizzards of advertising. Then we, the voters, will finally have our say.
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