In what was quickly billed as the weakest of the three presidential debates held in the run-up to the November 6 elections, the third and final encounter between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney saw mostly acquiescence by the former Massachusetts Governor on a number of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy positions.
With a CBS post-debate poll of uncommitted voters giving the President a winning score of 53 per cent, Mr. Romney 23 per cent and 24 per cent considering the event a tie, it was clear that Mr. Obama’s aggressive performance and his repeated allusion to his experience as Commander-in-Chief went some way in establishing his foreign policy credentials with observers. A second poll of uncommitted voters by CNN gave Mr. Obama 48 per cent and Mr. Romney 40 per cent after the debate in Boca Raton, Florida.
Yet both men appeared keen to limit the debate to their respective talking points, which not only resulted in the debate often being pulled back into arguments over domestic issues such as the economy, it also led to a vast swathe of nations, allies and foes of U.S. alike, being entirely ignored. India and sub-Saharan Africa, for example, did not feature in the debate at all, and the European Union and Latin America were only given passing mentions.
Both were however effusive in their remarks on their support for Israel, repeatedly asserting their commitment to protecting the U.S. ally from threats emanating from Iran, Egypt and other parts of West Asia. The Palestine question was notable for its absence.
When Mr. Romney accused Mr. Obama of going on an “apology tour” criticising the U.S. while visiting other nations, the President retorted, “When I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself [of] the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.”
A memorable moment in the debate came when Mr. Obama, striking a note of sarcasm on Mr. Romney’s allegation that the President planned to cut military spending by one trillion dollars, said, “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
While Mr. Romney may have surprised some within his own party by some of his agreement with Mr. Obama, for example that all U.S, troops ought to be drawn down from Afghanistan by 2014, he seemed to tone down the aggressive streak that he displayed in the previous two debates, possibly in an effort to appear cool-headed and presidential.
Two of India’s neighbours, Pakistan and China, however came up on several occasions during the debate. On Pakistan, moderator and CBS anchor Bob Schieffer came close to making a gaffe when he said that Pakistan had “arrested the doctor who helped us catch Obama’s bin Laden.” Regarding the hunt for bin Laden the President responded, “If we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten it him.”
Referencing the U.S.’ troubled relationship with Pakistan in the context of the Afghanistan strategy Mr. Romney admitted that it was “not time to divorce a nation on earth that has a hundred nuclear weapons and is on the way to double that at some point, a nation that has serious threats from terrorist groups within its nation — the Taliban, Haqqani network.” He added that while Pakistan was “technically an ally,” it was not acting very much like an ally, “but we have some work to do.” Especially because Pakistan did not have a civilian leadership calling the shots, Mr. Romney noted, if the nation fell apart and became a failed state, terrorists could get their hands on nuclear weapons.
On China, the only other nation from Israel that dominated the candidates’ time on air, there was even less dissonance in terms of the men’s policies. Surprisingly it was Mr. Obama who took up Mr. Romney’s war-cry of calling out “cheaters” from among China’s economic competitors.
Mr. Romney, contrarily, struck a conciliatory note, arguing, “China has an interest that's very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don't want war. They don't want to see protectionism.”
Pointing out that the country had about 20 million people coming out of the farms every year, seeking jobs in the cities, he noted, “We don't have to be an adversary in any way, shape or form... We can collaborate with them if they're willing to be responsible.”