Tight presidential race enters decisive weeks

Tight presidential race enters decisive weeks

Romney hews to centre, shunning bellicose tone in the final campaign debate

Mitt Romney’s task in Monday night’s foreign policy debate was to demonstrate that he could be a credible commander in chief, prepared to execute US power with more muscle and less compromise than President Barack Obama, but without veering into what Obama called the “wrong and reckless” policies of the last Republican in the Oval Office, George W Bush.

Continuing debate: US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann greet supporters as US President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle leave the stage at the end of the final presidential debate, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on Monday. AFP

But in a combative 90-minute debate that veered from whether the United States could control events in the fractious Middle East to which man has a better chance of forcing Iran’s mullahs to surrender their nuclear programme without resorting to war, Romney avoided the more bellicose tone he often struck during the Republican primaries.

While he sometimes pushed back at Obama, he explicitly said he would not intervene militarily in Syria, remain beyond 2014 in Afghanistan or rush into a confrontation with Iran.

He ended up agreeing with the broad outlines of Obama’s approach on the use of drones, and opposed a breach of relations with Pakistan, arguably America’s most frustrating ally. Romney had a narrower political task Monday night: to show he was conversant in the subject matter and to reassure a war-weary public that he would not plunge the country into new conflicts.

As he did in his previous two debates with Obama, he shifted to the middle, and at times he even sounded the nation-building theme the president talked about as a candidate in 2008, and abandoned after he was elected.

“We’re going to have to do more than just going after leaders and killing bad guys,” Romney argued several times, saying he would provide aid to build up democracies and discourage terrorism – something he rarely stressed before. He frequently talked of bringing about a “peaceful planet.”

Yet time and again, the president suggested that managing a world that at once craves and resents American power requires a lot more than martial-sounding declarations about calling in airstrikes or threatening to turn on and off US foreign aid.

And he relentlessly cast Romney as a man unwilling to recognize how perceptions of American strength have changed: When Romney complained that the Navy had shrunk to its smallest size since World War I, Obama dismissed the criticism. He noted that the capabilities of US ships are far beyond what they once were and added, “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets.”

For Romney, this final debate before the election in two weeks was clearly his weakest. While he seemed familiar with a range of topics, speaking about rebellions in Mali and ticking off the insurgent groups in Pakistan, he also took every opportunity he could to turn back to economic issues at home, his campaign theme.

Soon the two men were arguing about domestic job creation and support for education and teachers, until the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News, said with some exasperation, “We all love teachers.”

Intersection of international affairs

Even when the conversation turned to the intersection of international affairs and economics, Obama attacked his challenger, contending not only that Romney’s prescription for America’s automakers in 2009 would have put Americans out work, but also that it would have strengthened the Chinese.

“We’d be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China,” Obama argued, before the two men engaged in a now-familiar argument over whether Romney’s call for allowing General Motors to head into bankruptcy, without government investment, would have weakened Detroit.

On most of the specifics they argued about, Romney had a hard time explaining how he would act differently from Obama. He said he would not send the US military into Syria, or even attempt a no-fly zone over the county.

Though he noted several times that 30,000 people had died in the Syrian uprising, he said: “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage.” It was Obama, oddly enough, who made the case for the use of force, saying he had made the call to hunt down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and noting that Romney had called that “mission creep” and “mission muddle.”

Romney’s response was to argue that he was better suited to rein in the chaos in the Arab world, mostly by projecting American strength. But he was less than specific about how he would accomplish that task.

For example, when Schieffer asked him whether he would have “stuck with Mubarak,” referring to Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt and longtime American ally, Romney said that “the idea of him crushing his people was not something that we could possibly support.” What Obama lacked was “a better vision of the future” for the Middle East, he said.

It was on the confrontation that could well erupt in 2013, the nuclear faceoff with Iran, that the friction between these two men, and their underlying agreement on tactics, became most evident.

Asked whether there was a deal to be had with Iran, Obama argued that the country was weaker than ever because he had invoked “crippling sanctions” as a result of “painstaking” work that began “the day we got into office.” But he was elusive about what exactly Iran would have to do to convince him that it had given up any plan to build a nuclear weapons capability, simply vowing, “We’re not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence” that the Iranians are backing down.

Romney returned to a main theme of his campaign: that the mullahs had moved ahead with their program because “they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” One result, he said, is that “now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium.”

It was an accurate statement, but it avoided any mention of the fact that the construction programme was initially begun just before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, in Bush’s first term. And Obama, in his response, was constrained by secrecy laws from talking about his most aggressive action against Iran: his decision to expand a cyberwarfare campaign against the country.

Inevitably, the two men descended into an argument over whether Obama had conducted an international “apology tour,” leading Obama to declare that “this has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign.” Romney shot back that the president had said in his speeches in the Middle East that in the past “America had dictated to other nations.”

“President, America has not dictated to other nations,” Romney said. “We have freed other nations from dictators.”

In fact, America has done both, and the debate Monday night underscored that whether Obama is re-elected or Romney moves into the Situation Room, the United States will still find itself making compromises between its values and its interests, because it usually has little other choice.

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