Obama and Romney in final push

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama The candidates missed an opportunity to lay out a vision for America's role in the world

At the third and final US presidential debate focused on foreign policy, the presidential rivals tangled over the Arab Spring, Iran and China, and tried to slip in some economy policy.

President Barack Obama said his rival was "all over the map" on foreign policy. But former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney said the president had allowed "chaos" to engulf the Middle East.

Ted Bromund, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, and PJ Crowley, former US assistant secretary of state under Mr Obama, dissect the debate.

China trade relations

TB: This is a subject ripe for error and both candidates stepped into it.

Mr Romney's enthusiasm for unmasking China as a currency manipulator - when in reality its contribution to China's trade surplus with the US is non-existent - detracted from his better points about protecting US intellectual property.

The president played to the crowd by setting out the same tired accusation that Mr Romney had shipped jobs overseas when he was in the private sector.

PJC: Mr Obama emphasised the "pivot": the US strategic shift back to the Pacific region to balance a more assertive China and manage challenges like piracy. He defended his economic record, highlighting the trade disputes his administration has launched while doubling exports to China.

In recent American elections, candidates have scored political points by being tough on China. Mr Romney has been no exception.

Most significantly, Mr Romney reiterated his intention to declare China a currency manipulator. When asked if that might spark a trade war, Mr Romney said it was already underway.

"It's a silent one," he explained. "And they're winning."

Our longest war: Afghanistan and Pakistan

TB: Neither candidate distinguished himself in this discussion.

Mr Romney was more eager to discuss the dangers of Pakistan's failure as a state, which he set out very credibly. President Obama repeated the argument that there is a real and broad division between al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

If Mr Obama remains president, it is certain he will be continually confronted by the fact that the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban is far closer than he is willing to accept.

Although Mr Romney's strong defence of continued US ties with Pakistan was surprising - it would have been easy to play the isolationist card - the prize for the strangest contention on this topic went to the president. His claim that al-Qaeda was on the run came just hours after the news that Jordan had broken up a massive terror plot against Western embassies.

PJC: Mr Romney gave the president significant credit for his Afghanistan policy, in fact more than most national security analysts do. He termed both the surge and Afghan training programmes a success and committed that US forces would be out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

He also pushed back on Congressional sceptics (many of them Republicans) who advocate reducing or eliminating aid to Pakistan, by expressing concern that Pakistan could become a nuclear failed state.

Mr Obama, having received a Romney endorsement for one of his most controversial decisions, the Afghanistan surge, merely linked the transition in 2014 to the need for "nation building here at home". He barely mentioned Pakistan, perhaps reflecting the administration's frustration with its most difficult ally.

Red lines: Israel and Iran

TB: The president came down hard on Iran, calling it - accurately - a state sponsor of terrorism and a danger to the US and Israel.

The problem is that Iran is not the only nation in the Middle East that lacks credibility. As Mr Romney put it in a strong reply, the president's refusal to speak up for the Iranian dissidents in 2009 can only have heartened Iran's leaders.

The tougher the president talks on Iran, the more he raises the question of whether he is credibly able to threaten force. And the more he emphasises the reliability of US intelligence, the more he appears to rely on a "just in time" approach.

The past decade gives ample reason to doubt whether US intelligence is really good enough to make that approach work.

PJC: Given recent reports that the administration had reached a tentative agreement to negotiate one-on-one with Iran (a claim the White House and Iran both denied), this segment generated less heat than expected.

A key reason was a tactical decision by the Romney campaign to reverse their talking points that they had been sceptical of negotiations.

Mr Obama blunted Mr Romney's charge that he had not been supportive enough of Israel, making clear that the US would side with Israel if it were attacked. He attempted to turn the tables on Mr Romney.

Mr Obama drew a sharp contrast between his trip to Israel as a candidate (he has not yet visited Israel as president) and Mr Romney's trip this summer.

"I didn't take donors. I didn't attend fundraisers."

He went there to "remind myself [of] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable."

The Arab Spring

TB: Mr Romney had a challenging assignment on the Arab Spring. His task was to differentiate himself both from President Bush and President Obama.

The advantage of his approach, to acknowledge the danger of Islamism radicalism and to promote economic and social freedoms, was that it took a middle path. But by focusing on the future it left him open to Mr Obama's charges of inconsistency.

Mr Obama was more eager to attack Mr Romney than to address the question. The president's weakest moment came with his assertion that the US will find it easier to build alliances once it leaves Afghanistan. Many security professionals, on the other hand, wonder if Nato will have any role at all after it ends the war there.

PJC: When the discussion turned to the Middle East and the Arab Spring, the most significant disagreement was not between Mr Obama and Mr Romney, but between Mr Romney and former President George W Bush.

Suggesting early in the debate that "we can't kill our way out of this mess", Mr Romney suggested a "comprehensive and robust strategy" with non-military dimensions such as economic development, education, gender equality and the rule of law, areas the Obama administration is already pursuing.

Libya did not generate the sparks that it did in the second debate. Mr Obama noted that Mr Romney supported the Nato intervention, but he criticised Mr Romney for calling the search for Muammar Gaddafi as "mission creep", arguing it was important that "we finished the job" and removed Gaddafi from power.

Syria

TB: In discussing Syria, the candidates found it difficult to put blue water between one other.

Syria represents the kind of challenge that both candidates have trouble answering. For Mr Romney, it raises the shadow of Iraq, while for Mr Obama, it sits at the embattled intersection of his outreach to Iran, his "reset" with Russia, and his humanitarian intervention in Libya.

The problem for the president is that his emphasis on stopping slaughter in Libya and Egypt sorts ill with his hands-off approach to Syria. His emphasis on the possibilities of Egypt today sits uncomfortably with his concern for the future of the Egyptian peace treaty with Israel. -

PJC: Both men made clear they did not see a role for the US military in Syria. Mr Obama said, "Syrians are going to have to determine their own future." If anything, Mr Romney was even more categorical, adding, "I don't want to have our military involved in Syria."

Mr Romney appears prepared to provide weapons directly to the Syrian opposition, a step the Obama administration has not made. The president rightly cautioned that it's important to "know who we are helping", fearing that arms could eventually be turned against America, as happened in Libya.

America's role in the world

TB: It is all too obvious that both candidates believe that this election will not be won or lost on questions of foreign policy. How to make it winning topic? Make foreign policy about the economy.

But focusing on education, cutting oil imports and raising taxes on the wealthy - to name a few of the president's agenda items - is not nearly good enough.

And though defence spending - where the president was eager to cut - is vital, it too is not enough.

After Mr Romney's strong but short opening, neither candidate was willing to engage on the level of principles. This section of the debate was a missed opportunity, not just for the candidates, but for the nation as a whole.

PJC: Both men were more than happy to link economic strength at home to its ability to shape events abroad.

Mr Obama said that he had worked hard to rebuild relations with the international community, while Mr Romney continued to suggest that America's influence was receding.

Both candidates were asked about drones, which have become the signature weapon in the war against al-Qaeda despite growing international concerns about their employment.

Mr Obama returned to the results without addressing the means. "Al-Qaeda is much weaker than it was when I came into office."

Mr Romney was quick to say he agreed with their usage.

By ceding Mr Obama's achievements in foreign policy, Mr Romney was obviously anxious to move the campaign back to the economy, the ground on which the election will be decided. -

Ted Bromund is senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom of the Heritage Foundation

PJ Crowley is a former US assistant secretary of state under President Obama and is now a professor of practice and a fellow at the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at the George Washington University.

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