President Obama’s foreign-policy record has long been considered one of his strengths, but when Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney meet in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday night, there will be plenty of overseas controversies for the candidates to spar over. The ongoing war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and the controversy over Obama’s handling of an attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya are just some of the topics moderator Bob Schieffer may raise.
Voters got a taste for how the candidates may make their arguments two weeks ago, when the vice presidential candidates debated many of the same topics. But this time, it will be up to Obama and Romney themselves to make their case for why they deserve to be given the title of commander in chief.
Here are some of the issues likely to be debated.
The Attack on the U.S. Diplomatic Facility in Libya. Romney may try to come back from his widely perceived fumble during last week’s debate, when he accused Obama of delaying calling the assault on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi a “terrorist attack.” Obama, backed up by moderator Candy Crowley, said he did call the attack an “act of terror” in a speech in the Rose Garden the day after the attack on Sept. 11 that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. But Obama’s language at that time was a little ambiguous, leaving the president open to criticism that the Rose Garden statement was “a passing comment about acts of terror in general,” as Republican running mate Paul Ryan has described it. We’ll see if Romney fires another salvo during this debate.
Romney may also seize upon Vice President Joe Biden’s comments in the vice presidential debate that “we did not know” about requests for additional security assets in Benghazi, as well as remarks before a House panel by a senior State Department official that the United States had the “correct” number of security assets at the compound for the threat level on the night of the attack. The fact that House Republicans voted to cut funding for embassy security provides Obama with an obvious rejoinder.
The Threat of a Nuclear Iran. The vice presidential debate brought heated sparring over the Obama administration’s efforts to derail Tehran’s nuclear program, and Biden may have handed Romney an opening. “Biden’s sanguine approach to weaponization suggests either that he strayed far from Obama administration policy, or that the White House is more relaxed and confident about stopping Iran than it should be,” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg writes in a column for Bloomberg. If challenged, Obama would likely insist that he has taken no option off the table when it comes to preventing Iran from getting a bomb and tout the aggressive sanctions the United States has helped put in place. Obama, like Biden, will also likely question whether Romney’s hawkish rhetoric constitutes loose talk of war.
Looming Defense Cuts. Romney has blasted “President Obama’s defense cuts” that could cost tens of thousands of jobs—a point Obama would likely dispute, considering both parties agreed to the debt deal last August that would trigger $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, half from defense, if Congress fails to reach agreement on deficit reduction. Romney has said he would roll back the first tranche of $500 billion in cuts the military has already said it could safely absorb. Obama would retort that Romney’s plans would give the military $2 trillion it does not want or need, and insist that any deficit reduction must not unduly slash social programs simply to spare the military budget. He is also likely to call for the Bush-era tax cuts to be repealed for the wealthiest earners.
Trade With China. Romney has pledged to label China a currency manipulator should he win the White House, and bashing China’s trade policies has been standard practice for both candidates on the campaign trail. Romney may seize upon the Obama administration’s decision to delay releasing a report on international economic and exchange-rate policies until after the election as a sign of Obama’s weakness on the issue.
The War in Afghanistan. Romney has criticized the president’s strategy in Afghanistan, and he’s likely to be pressed on what he’d do differently in order to end American military involvement there. Romney has said that he’d work toward the agreed-upon 2014 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals, but his running mate has argued that it’s irresponsible to name a pullout date. “We don't want to broadcast to our enemies, put a date on your calendar, wait us out and then come back,” Ryan said during the vice presidential debate. Obama will need to make his case for why he still has confidence in a military strategy that focuses on training Afghan troops, particularly given the growing number of incidents in which Afghan troops have turned on their American partners.
The Conflict in Syria. Romney has faulted Obama for failing to adequately support the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. In a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney promised to work with international partners to identify and organize the members of the Syrian opposition and ensure they obtain the weapons to defeat Assad’s tanks, helicopters, and fighter jets. The Obama administration is already doing this, by allowing weapons to funnel into the country through the Gulf States, but the president isn’t likely to talk up a secretive program during the debate. Neither candidate has said the U.S. should directly send arms to the Syrian rebels.
Partnership With Israel. A frequent refrain from the Romney camp is that Obama has thrown Israel “under the bus” and created a rift in the relationship with its crucial ally in the Middle East. While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a relatively frosty relationship with Obama, the president is likely to adamantly disagree. The administration requested more than $3 billion in security-assistance funding for Israel this year—the largest such request in U.S. history.
America’s Role in the World. Romney has argued that America must remain the world’s strongest superpower and that an American president must retain the power to shape world events. Obama has argued that multilateralism can enhance American leadership, particularly when it comes to bringing international pressure to bear on a rogue state like Iran. For Romney, the challenge is make sure his talk of strong leadership reminds voters of President Reagan, not President George W. Bush and his expensive overseas wars. For Obama, the challenge is to articulate a more nuanced vision of America’s role without confusing voters, or losing their attention.