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Foreign policy questions to dominate final Obama-Romney debate

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2012 - WASHINGTON – Terrorism in Libya. Iran’s nuclear threat. The rise of China. The rapidly changing Middle East.

There is no shortage of potential topics for a discussion of U.S. foreign policy, and this year’s final presidential debate promises to touch on many of those at 8 p.m. Central Time on Monday evening at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla. The debate also offers a crucial last chance for each candidate to drive home his message in a direct confrontation with his opponent.

On paper, President Barack Obama – steeled by four years of dealing with at times challenging international issues from the White House – has the advantage in a foreign policy debate, just as Mitt Romney has an edge in experience related to business.

But in a debate forum, such paper predictions don’t always work out. Four years ago, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., could boast of more foreign policy experience, but Obama did fine. This time around, moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News will try to draw out the policy differences between Obama and Romney – and both candidates will try to use the final debate as an opportunity to drive home their positions.

“The president has the advantage of having had access to all that information” from White House briefings over the years, said former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent, an adviser to Romney on security issues who will be in the “spin room” during Monday’s debate. “But I’m confident of Gov. Romney’s abilities and understanding of foreign policy.”

On Friday, Obama accused his opponent of “Romnesia” in apparently forgetting or changing his positions on a number of issues important to women.

But in the foreign policy debate, Romney could try to diagnose the president with “Obama-nesia” because of his changing recollections of how the administration described the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the ambassador and three other Americans.

Talent thinks that issue – which came up in the first two debates in ways that didn't help Romney – will emerge again on Monday evening, in part because new information is emerging about the chronology of how the White House characterized and responded to the Sept. 11 attack.

If fact, GOP lawmakers, including McCain, have demanded documents that might shed light on what U.S. intelligence agencies knew – and when they knew it – at the time of the attacks and afterward. If such documents are made available to GOP lawmakers, the Associated Press reported Friday, it “could give Romney ammunition to use in his foreign policy debate with Obama on Monday night.”

But being too aggressive on Libya could also hurt Romney. Former United Nations Ambassador and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson argued Sunday that Obama has a major "advantage when it comes to foreign policy” because Romney “just seems to be bluster, blunder, cowboy-alone foreign policy.”

Richardson, a Democrat, told CNN said he was troubled by Romney’s efforts to “make political gain” with premature statements during the Benghazi crisis. Obama also has made fun of Romney's summer trip abroad, during which the GOP nominee offended some British officials by questioning Olympics security. 

In the context of the changing Middle East, Libya is only one of the likely topics that Schieffer wants to take up during the 90-minute debate’s eight-minute segments. Other issues are likely to include Iran and Israel; the rise of China; Afghanistan and Pakistan; “America's Role in the World”; and the impact of U.S. economic strength on international relations in the future.

Obama has been going over issues and strategy in his final “debate camp” this weekend at Camp David in Maryland, while Romney has been focusing on last-minute debate preparations at a site near Boca Raton.

While Schieffer, 75, is a traditional TV newsman like moderator Jim Lehrer – the PBS anchor who came under fire for taking a relatively passive role in the first debate – Schieffer has a reputation of being more aggressive as a moderator.

Four years ago, Schieffer’s questioning of Obama and McCain made the debate he moderated the liveliest of the four presidential encounters. A Reuters analyst wrote that Schieffer had studied the earlier debates and “was determined not to settle for the same pat answers. He dug, and pressed, and wouldn't let the candidates off the hook easily.”

Both Lehrer and the second debate’s moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, were criticized for opposite reasons – with Crowley irritating the Romney camp by interjecting an instant "fact check" on what Obama had said about the Libya attack. But Talent said he had no big complaint about the moderators and said Romney looked forward to the Schieffer-led debate.

In terms of major themes, Talent predicted in an interview that Romney “will make the point … that this country should lead in the world and should nurture its strength and alliances so we can preserve the peace and protect our interests.” He contended that Obama’s administration has shown “a lack of leadership – an almost explicit policy of having the United States take a secondary role, and also the weakening of our alliances and our [military] strength.”

While Obama’s ratings on foreign issues have been generally strong, surveys indicate that Romney – although improving since the first debate on Oct. 3 – still has quite a ways to go in convincing voters that he is trustworthy on foreign policy.

A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday indicated that Obama still led on the question of “who can do a better job making wise decisions about foreign policy,” with 47 percent of voters naming Obama and 43 percent Romney.

But that margin “represents a substantial gain for Romney, who trailed Obama by 15 points on foreign policy issues in September,” according to Pew. Romney gained on several domestic issues as well, including the deficit and jobs.

The Pew poll did not reflect the Oct. 16th second debate, during which Obama took a more aggressive stance in responding to Romney and criticizing his proposals.

One area in which respondents favored Romney over Obama was in U.S. policy towards China. Romney, who has said he would name China as a currency manipulator as soon as he becomes president, was given a 49 percent to 40 percent advantage over Obama in dealing with China’s trade policies.

Another Pew poll, taken in mid-October, showed mixed reviews of how Obama’s White House and State Department handled the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Libya: 38 percent of the 1,000 Americans surveyed disapproved; 35 percent approved; and 27 percent expressed no opinion.

Libya attack a likely debate focus

So far, the Libya discussions in the three debates (including the vice presidential debate, during which Vice President Joe Biden made the point that GOP nominee Paul Ryan had supported congressional bills that would have reduced funding for embassy security) have not done much to help Romney, most analysts say.

During last week’s Hofstra University debate, Romney tried to pin down Obama for saying that he had called the Benghazi attack an act of terrorism in his Sept. 12 Rose Garden comments. “I want to make sure we get that for the record,” Romney blustered, “because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.” But Obama countered, “Get the transcript,” and moderator Crowley told Romney that the president “did, in fact” use the word “terror” in that statement.

The way that part of the debate came across was unfortunate, Talent said, adding that “we didn’t expect the president to take the position that, from the beginning, his administration believed that these attacks were the result of a terrorist conspiracy. Because the record is so clear that they actually took the position that it was a spontaneous uprising in response to the [anti-Muslim] video.”

This time around, Talent predicted, “Gov. Romney will be prepared. It wouldn’t shock me if the president doesn’t say, ‘Look, we did take the position that this was a spontaneous thing,’ and then do what Biden did [in the vice president debate] and say it was the intelligence we got. It will be interesting to see how that’s handled.”

Talent said Romney wants to “get to the real issue, which is: Why they thought that, and why we weren’t better prepared. And broader questions about what led to this, what caused the environment in that area to be such that so many of our embassies were attacked.”

Perhaps giving a hint to how he would respond to such attacks, Obama on Thursday night told the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart – who asked if the U.S. response to the Benghazi attack had been “optimal” – that “if four Americans get killed, it’s not optimal. We’re going to fix it. All of it.”

Obama added that “the government is a big operation and at any given time something screws up. And you make sure that you find out what’s broken and you fix it. Whatever else I have done throughout the course of my presidency the one thing that I’ve been absolutely clear about is that America’s security” comes first.

And the Libya debate may be complicated by an AP report Friday that the CIA station chief in Libya “reported to Washington within 24 hours of last month's deadly attack on the U.S. consulate that there was evidence it was carried out by militants, not a spontaneous mob upset about an American-made video ridiculing” Islam.

However, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, citing documents from a “senior U.S. intelligence official,” reported Saturday that the “talking points” provided to administration officials on Sept. 15 – the day that UN Ambassador Susan Rice taped taped three appearances on TV talk shows -- “support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video.”

Iran, Iraq and China will also be discussed

Although Republicans have kept the issue in the news lately, the discussion of the Libya attack may end up dominating only a small part of the debate.

Another key segment is likely to focus on Iran and its potential nuclear threat to Israel and the region. While Israel’s prime minister has said he wants to draw a “red line” on when action should be taken to halt Iran’s weapons development program, some question whether it would be wise for the U.S. to follow suit.

“Whether you are the president or the candidate, you are limited by classified information and [traditional practice] in getting into any the level of detail on a decision like that,” said Talent, who the National Journal named Friday as “the most likely choice” for secretary of defense in a Romney administration.

“I think what Gov. Romney will talk about is what he would have done differently – and what he would still do – in order to try and prevent the Iranians from getting nuclear capability, without having to confront a red line. Because that’s obviously the goal of the policy.”

The Iran issue was further complicated on Saturday, when the New York Times posted an article, attributed to Obama administration officials, reporting that this country and Iran have “agreed” to bilateral nuclear negotiations starting after the U.S. presidential election.

The Times later changed the first paragraph of its story to read that Iran had “agreed in principle” to meet – after NSC Spokesman Tommy Vietor issued a statement saying “it's not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections.” Vietor added, however, that U.S. negotiators “have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

While a deal to conduct bilateral talks might give Obama some ammunition to claim that his administration’s sanctions against Iran were working, Romney’s team could contend that White House might be making a tactical mistake by agreeing to talk one-on-one with leaders of a nation that has sponsored terrorism in parts of the Middle East.

On China, the moderator has said he plans to ask about U.S. policy in light of the rise of China as an economic and military superpower. While Romney has been harsh in criticizing the Chinese government for currency manipulation, Talent thinks he sees the potential for a long-term partnership with the Chinese on certain issues, such as combating piracy.

“Gov. Romney will talk more broadly about what the general approach to the rise of Chinese power ought to be. I think he’ll say, ‘Look, we should not think of China as an enemy – and our policy should be to keep China from becoming an enemy,’” Talent said.

“And the best way to do that is to follow bipartisan postwar traditions of American foreign policy, which is to anticipate and manage risk, maintain a strong presence in the region and nurture our alliance. If we do that, there’s no reason that the Chinese, over time, wouldn’t be vigorous competitors but not an enemy – and perhaps even a partner in certain respects.”

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