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A poorly focused debate reveals an assertive Obama and the challenger who agrees with him

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Flip a coin: Which will be the face of US foreign policy next year?
  • Tim Fernholz
By Tim Fernholz

Senior reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Call it American exceptionalism. Despite a mandate to cover the global issues left out of the first two debates, the sole foreign-policy argument between the country’s two presidential candidates stuck to America’s parochial obsessions: Its Middle Eastern entanglements, its relationship with Israel, and its own troubled economy. Left out? The European crisis, India, Mexico, international tax law and host of other major issues. The two candidates’ strategies were clear: Romney tried to distance himself from his neoconservative statements on foreign policy and talk about domestic problems, while Obama set out to define Romney as both the inheritor of George W. Bush’s legacy and an untrustworthy public face for the nation. Pundits (and Intrade) suggest Obama won another narrow decision, but Romney’s cautious performance likely didn’t cost him much.

The styles set the scene.

Obama kept reminding voters that he has been running US foreign policy for the last four years.

Because the debate was in the critical swing state of Florida, where Jewish voters have a significant voice, Israel was mentioned early and often:

Other topics were avoided:

But the Middle East got plenty of attention, and also some gaffes. Obama didn’t explain the subtle nuances of America’s support for the Saudi monarchy and Arab democracy activists, while Romney suggested that Iran saw Syria as its road to the sea, though the countries aren’t contiguous and Iran already has seaports.

Romney often found himself echoing Obama’s positions on everything from the Syrian civil war to deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions, including a contest-within-a-contest where each man attempted to describe the “crippling sanctions” their administration would level against the latter country as often as possible.

With the economy at the top of voters mind in the US, candidates never missed an opportunity to pivot to domestic policy, though not always with consistent results:

Obama even made some news:

Finally, the end, China got some attention from the two candidates, largely negative and a little misguided:

Meanwhile, among the financial press…

And an instant verdict on the debate’s winner:

PRIMARY SOURCE: Here is a transcript of the third and final presidential debate of 2012, on foreign policy.

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