Although conventional wisdom among pundits holds that President Barack Obama enjoys significant foreign policy advantages over challenger Mitt Romney, a recent Pew Research Center poll suggests that, heading into Monday's debate, U.S. voters see the gap narrowing. Mr. Obama held a 15-point lead on foreign policy issues in September, but on the eve of the debate, 47 per cent of voters believe Mr. Obama would do a better job on foreign policy decisions, while 43 per cent favour Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney will have to neutralize Mr. Obama's foreign policy successes, which are real, while arguing that the different approach he offers could better address some of the challenges that have continued to mount during Mr. Obama's term.
One of Mr. Obama's obvious advantages is that his administration managed to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. On the campaign trail, Mr. Romney said the decision to authorize the raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was so easy that "even Jimmy Carter" would have made it – a rather botched line, given that Mr. Carter's Operation Eagle Claw fiasco illustrates precisely what could have gone wrong. Nonetheless, Mr. Romney will likely paint the bin Laden raid as an easy decision, one that does not represent daylight between the two candidates.
Mr. Romney has similarly argued he shares other popular Obama approaches to foreign policy. Sixty per cent of Americans believe that U.S. troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan as soon as possible, and Mr. Romney has on multiple occasions called for troops to come home by the end of 2014 – the same deadline that the president embraces.
While playing defense against Mr. Obama's strengths, Mr. Romney can also play offense in areas where foreign policy problems have mounted. As with any challenger, some attacks will be fair, and others will not: some attacks will highlight areas where either there are structural problems that no administration could solve, or where problems are so remarkably complex that the solution offered really would not address it.
A couple of points related to the Middle East are worth highlighting. One is the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which was already discussed in last week's debate. Mr. Romney's line of attack has alleged that the administration was slow to refer to the attack as terrorist in nature, instead insisting that it was the product of a spontaneous demonstration.
Though moderator Candy Crowley intervened on Mr. Obama's behalf in the second debate, stating that he called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" on Sept. 12, the text of that speech is actually quite ambiguous. President Obama used the term "acts of terror" following a couple of paragraphs referring to the devastating attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath.
But if discussion of Benghazi helps Mr. Romney, the manner in which it might do so is ambiguous. The administration wasn't trying to cover up what happened, and Mr. Obama hasn't been reticent about confronting terrorism. However, the aftermath of the attacks may, as Tufts University's Daniel Drezner has suggested, indicate "a lack of co-ordination between the intelligence community, the State Department, and the White House on a vital matter of national security." Further, published reports in the wake of the Benghazi attack highlight another area where the administration has gotten its assessment wrong: the forces of global jihadism aren't as close to defeat as the administration has claimed.
This brings us to the second issue: most Americans are pessimistic about the Arab Spring. Fifty-seven per cent of Americans think political changes in places like Libya and Egypt won't lead to lasting improvements for people in those countries, and the number of Americans who think these changes will hurt the U.S. outnumber those who assess them as beneficial.
These poll numbers may indicate, among other things, growing skepticism about Mr. Obama's military intervention in Libya. Indeed, the Benghazi attacks seem to add an exclamation mark to this skepticism, undermining claims that the Libya war advanced U.S. interests. Though the wisdom of the Libya war deserves to be debated, it will be difficult for Mr. Romney to exploit the issue: on the campaign trail, he criticized Mr. Obama for waiting too long before committing to military action.
There are other areas of difference between the candidates. They draw different red lines over Iranian nuclear development. Mr. Romney would be more willing to arm the Syrian rebels. Mr. Romney is more hawkish on China, saying he would label it a currency manipulator immediately upon taking office. Though such action is exceedingly unlikely, the American public favours Mr. Romney over Mr. Obama by nine points on Chinese trade issues.
Mr. Romney is unlikely to score a decisive victory over Mr. Obama in this debate like he did in the first one. Yet the debate can play to his advantage if he can allay public concerns that he is too inexperienced, or lacks the right temperament, on foreign policy issues.
The gap between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney on foreign policy is now extremely narrow. A strong performance by Mr. Romney could keep it small, and in the best case, could render Mr. Obama's foreign policy advantages negligible.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of several books and monographs, most recently Bin Laden's Legacy.