The third and final presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla., last night was a tame affair compared to the brawl that took place in the previous meeting between the Republican candidate Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. But it did leave Mr. Obama with a winning record: a loss, a TKO and now a win by default. The ever-mutating Mr. Romney modulated his more radical, Tea-Party-friendly positions on foreign policy by essentially endorsing everything the President has done in major hot spots, such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Israel. At times he seemed to be reciting from a well-memorized list of talking points that could have been written by the White House; Mr. Obama, who put the incumbent’s natural advantage as Commander-in-Chief to good use and got off a few memorable zingers, but also came across as condescending at times, had to struggle to find daylight between what he has done in office and what Mr. Romney says he would do.
What this means for the world is that the U.S. we see exercising its influence around the globe today will be the same one after the election regardless of who wins. What it means for Mr. Romney is that, having been handed an easy win in the first debate by a distracted opponent, he has now blown that early lead by failing to give Americans a reason to choose his version of foreign policy over the existing one.
For instance, both men reasserted that Israel is America’s closest ally in the Middle East and both vowed that the U.S. military would rush to its defence if it were attacked. In Syria, both men want to see the departure of the ruthless president Bashar al-Assad and are willing to support the opposition in their attempt to overthrow the government, while being careful not to arm militants who could later turn those weapons on Americans and their allies. On al-Qaeda, Mr. Romney praised the President for the killing of Osama Bin Laden and endorsed Mr. Obama’s tactic of taking out top terrorist leaders one by one while also using diplomacy to reduce the influence of terror organizations. On Afghanistan, Mr. Romney changed his previous position and came out in support of a measured withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region, which is the President’s plan. And in Iran, both vowed that that country will never be allowed to possess nuclear weapons, although in this case Mr. Romney did seem to go further than the President when he said he wouldn’t let Iran become “nuclear capable,” implying that the country should not even be allowed to power a light bulb with the aid of atomic fission.
Even on Libya, a subject on which the President is vulnerable because of a series of White House miscommunications about what happened when in the death of four Americans in Benghazi, Mr. Romney suddenly played the elder statesman and practically complimented Mr. Obama on his handling of the situation. Other areas Mr. Romney could have exploited but didn’t included the monetary crisis in Europe and, in particular, China’s unfair trading practices, including the deliberate devaluation of its currency to make its exports more valuable. There again, he failed to distinguish his views from the efforts the current administration is already undertaking.
If the point of a presidential debate is to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses and demonstrate how you would do things differently, Mr. Romney failed quite spectacularly last night. There are now two weeks left until the election. The two men were tied in the polls going into the final debate, and Mr. Romney still has an edge on domestic issues because of America’s struggling economy, which always works against the incumbent. The Republican candidate still has a chance, but it won’t be his derivative take on foreign policy that will put him over the top.