Foreign Policy Debate: 6 Things To Watch For In Last Presidential Debate


As a foreign policy junkie, it fills me with utter glee that a foreign policy debate may actually prove relevant in a presidential campaign. How relevant? Well, I’m not holding my breath, but anytime that the issues the President has the most direct control over gains the spotlight, I consider it a win.

With the following few paragraphs, I will take a look at some (but by no means all) of the topics that may come up in this debate, with some of the strengths and weaknesses for both side.

1. Libya

The issue is not entirely clear for either side of the argument. David Ignatius, who is in my opinion the best reporter when it comes to issues of intelligence, reported that CIA analysis after the attack was as confusing as the White House’s statements as times. This should not be terribly surprising given the chaos following the events. On the other hand, other documents show conclusively that security fears were swept aside before the attack. While Obama was certainly not in the room when these decisions were made, the buck stops with him (as he so pointedly mentioned in the second debate).

Romney bombed this question last time and must provide a better answer on Monday, which I think he will. If he can avoid sounding too political and focus on how he would better protect American personnel, I think this is a topic that is advantageous for him.

Advantage: Romney

2. Syria

The Syrian civil war is the most important current topic of foreign affairs that gets too little play within the media and the population as a whole. The death toll per capita dwarfs Iraq when it was at its worst and current trends don’t show the conflict ending anytime soon.

Both campaigns have been cautious and vague about how to proceed. The Obama administration has provided very limited assistance to the rebels with communications and other aid, but has mostly relied on Turkey. Romney has promised to help arm the Syrian rebels, but, as with most issues, the devil is in the details, and I’m unsure how well his idea would hold up to criticism that weapons might end up in the hands of radical Islamist groups without greater detail.

Advantage: Neither

3. Terrorism/Afghanistan

This may be the trickiest issue for Romney. He wants to promise a more stable Afghanistan, but at the same time cannot say he wants to leave large numbers of American troops stationed there, with the war having become quite unpopular amongst the public. Obama may mention some pointless statistics on issues like Afghan security personnel trained that will sound nice but mean little. His main answer, however, will be that he killed Osama bin Laden, and that it’s time to draw down in Afghanistan, an argument Romney may not have an effective response to. 

Advantage: Obama

4. China

Both campaigns have been touting how tough they are on China. Romney promises to label the country a “currency manipulator,” while Obama will certainly mention the World Trade Organization cases brought against China, as well as the “strategic pivot.” I honestly hope that neither is actually serious about risking U.S.-China relations over some trade disputes (and I think neither is), but the American people love some old-fashioned communist-bashing, so the winner will likely be the one who sounds tougher.

Advantage: Romney (slightly)

5. Russia

This may come up only because Romney has repeatedly mentioned Russia as the “No. 1 foe of the United States.” I don’t know why Romney would continue to bring up this Cold-War mentality, but few Americans honestly know anything or care about Russian foreign policy anymore, and to be blunter, calling them our “No. 1 foe” is a vast and bellicose oversimplification. If this does come up, expect Obama to talk about his criticisms of the Putin regime, as well as the agreed-upon reduction in nuclear weapons. I never knew how this issue could be a win for Romney, and I still don’t.

Advantage: Obama

6. European Union

This may be the easiest question that both sides are hoping will come up, simply because it will allow both to pivot to domestic issues, mainly the economy and the deficit. I’m going to reserve judgment on the domestic policy plans of both candidates, but the sure loser in this topic will be the European Union itself.

Advantage: Neither


Now I know I missed many countries, some that are likely to come up (i.e. Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel), others less likely to arise (i.e. Venezuela, India). My response is: cut me some slack. This is a topic worth 2,500 words being done in less than 1,000.

The issues themselves, however, take a back seat to the far more important issue for each candidate. The bottom line is that both candidates need to look more “presidential.” Obama has long held a lead in foreign policy, and this is Romney’s chance to portray himself not only as a campaigner, but a statesman as well. If he leaves the debate being viewed by the public as someone who can be a statesman equal to that of the current administration, then, in my opinion, he wins the debate. On the opposite side of the coin, Obama has to come away looking like the strong, principled statesman that he claims to be. If he lands enough punches to discredit Romney’s foreign policy arguments while containing any damage from the Libyan proceedings, then he’ll likely be viewed as the winner of the debate.

Now, to end on a lighter note, everyone should also remember that, while debates can be interesting on their own, they can become even more interesting for those over the age of 21.

Enjoy the debate.