In the third U.S. presidential debate, Mitt Romney has been criticized for failing to distinguish himself from President Barack Obama on matters of foreign policy, particularly those concerning the Middle East.
Rather than a failing, however, this similarity of world outlook was Mr. Romney’s objective, and he achieved it effectively.
The election is unlikely to be won on matters of foreign policy, although it could be lost on such things if a candidate appears weak, unknowledgeable or extreme.
Going into this debate, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, risked being seen as having one or more of these unappealing characteristics. In particular, he needed to distinguish himself not from Mr. Obama, but from the more right-wing members of the George W. Bush administration who have been advising the Republican candidate.
The fact that on foreign policy there was nothing dramatically different about the Obama and Romney positions on Iran or Syria (or Libya, Iraq and Israel for that matter) meant that candidate Romney achieved his most important goal. He could not be described as extreme, since that would have meant President Obama was equally extreme.
Both men traded barbs about the other’s weakness in applying policies or, in Mr. Romney’s case, his lack of experience in applying them, but neither scored a decisive victory here. Mr. Obama’s mocking of Mr. Romney, as in the case of the required size of the U.S. navy, for example, (“this isn’t a game of Battleship,” he said) cut both ways – those predisposed to criticize the former governor will have enjoyed it; those who dislike President Obama’s approach will view the remarks as arrogant.
It is worth noting that neither man spoke at any length about the issue of the Palestinians and their struggle for a state alongside Israel. This is one area where Mr. Obama is perceived in the Middle East as particularly disappointing – his denouncement of Israeli settlements and other statements early on in his term gave great hope to the Palestinians and their leadership. After four years, however, little has changed except the expansion of those settlements.
Mr. Romney, who is viewed as a greater friend to Israel than is Mr. Obama, obviously chose to stay clear of this issue, which is a loss for U.S. voters concerned with both Israel and the Palestinians, though it may have been to his electoral advantage.
In the course of the 90-minute debate, Mr. Romney displayed sufficient knowledge of foreign issues and adequate strength of character to avoid being tagged as either uninformed or weak.
And by taking any foreign policy difference out of the equation, the election now is likely to be won on the economy, the battleground that Mr. Romney prefers, and where Mr. Obama’s strengths are more limited.