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How the Obama-Romney foreign-policy debate could determine the election

With turmoil increasing in world hot spots, foreign policy and national security have become major presidential campaign issues. From China to Israel, Iran to Syria, stateless terrorists to struggling alliances, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have plenty to debate Monday night.

By Staff writer / October 21, 2012

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate Oct. 16 at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

David Goldman/AP

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How important is Monday night’s foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney? The way things stand right now, it could determine the outcome on Election Day.

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Nobody would have predicted that just a few weeks ago. But with Mr. Romney’s late-in-the-day insurgency in the polls, the race has become dead even. And momentum – what George H.W. Bush called “the Big Mo” – seems to be on Romney’s side.

Two main reasons:

First, Romney clearly won the first debate against President Obama, who even jokes now about “the nice long nap I had in the first debate.” In their second set-to, Obama was much more engaged, even animated. But aside from Romney’s gaffe about “binders full of women,” the challenger pretty much held his own against the incumbent president.

Second, most voting Americans may worry about the economy first, but foreign policy and national security have become much more important as well. Israel’s security, Iran’s nuclear program, China’s currency, violent revolution in Syria, and certainly Libya – since the US ambassador was killed in a terrorist attack there – all have become major campaign issues and therefore debating points.

Also, while Romney and his running mate Rep. Paul Ryan have no foreign-policy experience, and that can be seen as a weakness in the GOP ticket, Obama has a mixed record to defend.

Think you know the Middle East? Take our geography quiz.

You can be sure Romney will try to paint that as adding up to weakness and indecision – “leading from behind” is sure to be brought up – not to mention what he claims is a certain distancing from Israel.

“Unfortunately, this president’s policies have not been equal to our best examples of world leadership. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East,” Romney said in his speech at the Virginia Military Institute earlier this month. “When we look at the Middle East today, with Iran closer than ever to nuclear weapons capability, with the conflict in Syria threatening to destabilize the region and with violent extremists on the march, and with an American ambassador and three others dead – likely at the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates – it’s clear that the risk of conflict in the region is higher now than when the president took office.”

The terrorist attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya – which came on the anniversary of 9/11 at a time when much of the region was in turmoil over a crude anti-Islam YouTube video made in the United States – is particularly troublesome for Obama.

Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius reports that initial CIA “talking points,” provided by a senior US intelligence official, supported UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s early contention that the attack in Benghazi was tied to protests against the YouTube video.

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