If the purpose of tonight’s foreign policy debate was to inform the public about the candidates’ views on foreign policy, it was mostly a failure. An attentive, uninformed voter would know almost nothing at the end of the debate about the candidates’ respective foreign policy visions that he didn’t know at the beginning, and for informed voters it was even less useful. Not only were the topics narrowly focused on a handful of the same North African and Near Eastern issues that are often treated as the entirety of U.S. foreign policy, but a huge portion of the time was spent rehashing arguments from the domestic policy sections of the previous debate. The debate was already going to give short shrift to many important international issues, and Schieffer allowed the discussion to veer off into topics that had limited or no relevance to the subject at hand. Romney did nothing to change my view that he lacks experience and competence on foreign policy, but I have to acknowledge that he survived the debate.
A review of the transcript will show that Romney delivered a lot of incoherent answers, but that probably won’t hurt him with most viewers. He leaned heavily on some of the dated talking points I said he ought to avoid. He referred back to the Green movement protests at least twice, and he trotted out his old favorite of having Ahmadinejad indicted under the Genocide Convention, both of which were reminders that Romney has had virtually nothing new or interesting to say on Iran policy in many years.
Obama effectively ridiculed Romney on some of his more outlandish statements from the campaign trail, such as his “number one geopolitical foe” blunder, but made the odd choice of giving a strong defense of the Libyan war that included a thoroughly dishonest accounting of why he supported the overthrow of Gaddafi. Invoking Gaddafi’s past crimes against Americans might make for a good soundbite, but those past crimes obviously didn’t stop the U.S. from having normal relations with the regime for two years prior to the war. Those past crimes weren’t the reason that the U.S. and NATO went to war in Libya, and everyone should understand that. It struck me as an unnecessary and unforced error on Obama’s part. As for Romney, he surprisingly mentioned Mali several times during the debate, but made no effort to link it to any policy criticism, which he wouldn’t have been in any position to make in any case.
Overall, Obama had the better of the debate, but Romney made no fatal errors and went out of his way to claim that he was deeply concerned to promote peace. If viewers were already inclined not to believe Romney’s hawkish campaign rhetoric, Romney’s debate performance provides some encouragement to them. If one assumes that Romney was just downplaying his hawkish positions for the sake of a general election audience, there was nothing that Romney said tonight that was at all reassuring.