The dead-and-buried-at-sea Osama bin Laden drew louder cheers at the Democratic National Convention than most of the live speakers, in between the jingoistic chants of “USA! USA! USA!” At the Republican Party’s showcase the previous week, Mitt Romney barely touched on foreign policy and didn’t once mention the war in Afghanistan. The scenes underscored the degree to which President Obama has hijacked the GOP’s longtime advantage on foreign affairs and national security. He ended the unpopular war in Iraq, set a deadline for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and sanctioned the killing of the terrorist atop the world’s most-wanted list.
Romney, in contrast, has let his inexperience on the foreign stage show time and again. Sounding like a Cold War relic, he called Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.” At a closed-door fundraiser, he set a defeatist tone for peace in the Middle East when he said that “the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace.” His overseas trip during the summer was panned after he questioned London’s preparedness for the Olympics and suggested that Palestinian culture was inferior. More recently, Romney was widely criticized for rushing into a political attack against the administration shortly after the assault on the Libyan consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans last month—and then he stumbled at the debate this week when criticizing Obama’s response.
It would seem, then, that between Romney’s flubs and his own bragging rights, the president is well positioned heading into Monday’s debate on foreign policy. That’s an enviable place for a sitting president in a tight race who is presiding over one of the weakest economic recoveries in modern times. Only one man on stage gets to call himself the commander in chief, and he’s not Mitt Romney.
“Foreign policy is Obama’s strong suit, and any incumbent president has a certain advantage on foreign policy,’’ said Vin Weber, a lobbyist and former House member from Minnesota advising the Romney campaign. “Of course, we’d rather be talking about the economy. I expect the president’s team wanted foreign policy as the last debate for obvious reasons, and I think it was a smart move from him.”
The impact of the final debate depends, however, on how many voters pay attention. In 2008, the foreign-policy debate came first and drew the fewest number of viewers, 52.4 million according to Nielsen. The second and third debates drew 63.2 million and 56.5 million viewers, respectively.
Romney’s sparring partner in debate practices, Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, acknowledged after the second debate that foreign affairs ranked “probably 7 or 8 or 9” on a list of voters’ top concerns, according to CNN. Even so, Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, have been eager to attack Obama’s foreign policy on the campaign trail, accusing him of apologizing for America, “leading from behind,” and taking an approach to the Arab Spring that is unraveling.
More of the same will come on Monday. Romney is almost certain to press the Benghazi issue again in an attempt to portray Obama as weak and out-of-touch. In the town-hall setting this week, Romney mistakenly said that Obama failed to immediately characterize the murders as an act of “terror.” Actually, he did, as moderator Candy Crowley of CNN pointed out, deflating Romney’s attack. What Romney meant to say was that the administration was slow to point to “terrorism,” initially blaming a riotous response to a profane video as the catalyst.
Romney is also expected to accuse the president of jeopardizing Israel’s security by allowing Iran to build a nuclear weapon, reacting passively to the violence in Syria, and failing to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices and currency manipulation. In a new poll, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 56 percent of Americans said that it’s more important to take a firm stand against Iran’s nuclear program, compared with 35 percent who said it’s more important to avoid military conflict. The percentage of Americans who want the U.S. to get tougher on China is also growing.
What’s more, the poll found Obama’s overall advantage in the arena fading—possibly because of persistent questions about his handling of the Libya attacks. Asked which candidate can do a better job in making foreign-policy decisions, Americans favored Obama over Romney by only 4 percentage points, compared with a 15-point gap in September.
“The president is not coming into this debate in the same position he was a couple months ago on foreign policy,” Weber said. “His leadership is in question, and there’s a lot of potential for Romney.”
Romney, by contrast, may need to defend himself against charges by Obama, playing on Americans’ combat fatigue, that his rhetoric is too aggressive and he seems too eager for military intervention—particularly regarding Iran. “If Governor Romney is suggesting that we should start another war, he should say so,” Obama said recently on CBS’s 60 Minutes.
Still, foreign-policy hawks say that the most compelling argument Romney could make in the final debate is that Obama is withdrawing the United States from its essential leadership role on the world stage.
“President Obama’s message has been that America is retiring, and that’s not what the American people want or what the world needs,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “We face real threats and real challenges, and if we don’t face them head on, they are going to be right at our shores.”
She added, “There’s only so much blood you can squeeze from a dead Osama bin Laden.”
This article originally appeared in print as "Foreign Intrigue."
This article appears in the Oct. 20, 2012, edition of National Journal.