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.

David Goldman/AP
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.

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.

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.

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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.

But Republicans in Congress (and Romney) have jumped all over the Obama administration’s subsequent remarks on the episode, particularly statements regarding “terrorism” and “terrorists.”

It’s all of a piece, Romney charges. “Our country seems to be at the mercy of events rather than shaping them,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed column.

Still, Obama can rightly claim to have decimated Al Qaeda’s leadership, including Osama bin Laden. And it’s unlikely that Romney as president – despite his buddy-buddy relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could do any more than Obama has done to tighten the economic screws on Iran.

Meanwhile, the debate over who’s toughest on Iran took a new twist when the New York Times (citing “administration officials”) reported Saturday that the United States and Iran “have agreed in principle for the first time to one-on-one negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program … setting the stage for what could be a last-ditch diplomatic effort to avert a military strike on Iran.”

Was this some sort of “October surprise?” Not so, insisted administration officials, who denied the report.

But the Romney camp was quick to label it “another example of a national security leak from the White House,” as Sen. Rob Portman, who played Obama in Romney's debate preparations, did Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Obama spokesmen were just as quick to defend administration policy on Iran.

"For two years, the president traveled the world putting together a withering international coalition. And now the sanctions that they agreed on are bringing the Iranian economy to its knees," said David Axelrod, a senior Obama adviser, also speaking on NBC. "They're feeling the heat. And that's what the sanctions were meant to do."

Both Obama and Romney are preparing to the hilt for Monday night’s encounter. The last thing either wants to do is have the post-debate discussion focus on a “binders” kind of gaffe – the kind that helped deny Gerald Ford reelection in 1976 when he declared in a debate with Jimmy Carter, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.”

"I think the stakes are pretty high for both candidates," Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday. "If we are lucky, we, the voters, we will come out of it at the end thinking, 'I actually know something of Mitt Romney's philosophy as he looks at the world and America's place in it. I understand better what President Obama wants to do and how he sees things.' "

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