LIVE BLOG: Romney, Obama spar over foreign policy in final U.S. presidential debate

Welcome to Suffragio‘s live-blog of the final of the three presidential debates between the Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, which will feature foreign policy.

Tonight, I hope to provide a world politics context in real-time to the U.S. foreign policy discussion, as well as my analysis of the world politics implications of the foreign policy objectives of each candidate.

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10:28. Not a single word about the eurozone crisis. Not much, aside from a few references to Mali, about sub-Saharan Africa.  Not much about Latin America, and not a word about Mexico, where the incoming president Enrique Peña Nieto promises quite a change from the past 12 years.  Not a word about India. Basically, 75 minutes of wrangling about Israel, Iran, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan (and maybe Russia) with a perfunctory segment on China that turned into a domestic policy pissing match.

10:25.  Speaking of apology tours, Romney is sounding incredibly defensive about Detroit and his position on the auto bailout.  Of course, Detroit is one of the most important world capitals.

10:23.  Obama is now talking more generally about the Pacific Rim. “America is a Pacific power, we are going to have a presence there.”

The opening of Burma/Myanmar to political and economic liberalization has been, quite rightly, one of the top accomplishments of the State Department under U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton.  But the Philippines and Indonesia are now gathering economic steam at a time when China and Vietnam, long showcased for their engine of economic growth, are slowing.  South Korea will elect a new president in December 2012, and North Korea is adjusting to its own leadership transition from King Jong-Il to Kim Jong Un.

10:22.  Speaking of the Republican presidential debates of the past, I am missing Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor, and Obama’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011, and his perfunctory Chinese language sentence.

10:21.  “You invested in companies that sent jobs overseas!” Obama takes the low-hanging fruit here in making a domestic point about Romney’s private equity record.

10:19.  Romney again says he will, on day one, label China a “currency manipulator.” The value of China’s currency, the remimbi, has actually appreciated a bit since 2010, but it probably has more to do with the Chinese wanting to tamp down inflation than anything the Obama administration has done (or, frankly, anything a Romney administration could do) — for the record, it’s up 8.5% since January 2009, marking a value of around $0.159.  It’s still probably overvalued, but maybe less so than it had been previously.

10:18.  “China has not played by the same rules.” But which Chinese jobs, specifically, does Romney want to bring back?

10:17.  Interestingly, Romney says the greatest threat to the United States is a nuclear-armed Iran; Obama says it is the continued threat of terrorist attacks.  I think most Americans agree with Obama here. Kenneth Waltz probably does!

10:16.  So did Schieffer really just give Obama an opportunity to discuss terrorism in the China segment, after 75 minutes of talking about terrorism, in one way or another?

10:15.  Finally, to China.

The standing committee of China’s Politburo, which is set to be finalized in November, is the first stage of a once-in-a-decade transition.  Xi Jingping is set to succeed Hu Jintao as China’s paramount leader, and his views on a wide range of matters are, right now, still vague.  Although Li Keqiang is set to remain on the committee as Xi’s premier, the committee is likely to be reduced from nine members to just seven, and the remaining five members will be entirely new. The succession follows a sensational (for China) political downfall of Chongqing boss Bo Xilai.  So the winner of the U.S. presidential race will be tasked with navigating the transition to the ‘Fifth Generation’ of Chinese leadership.

10:13.  First mention of Tunisia.

10:12. “Is al Qaeda on the run? No,” Romney claims. I’m not sure that’s right. It seems like the threat from al-Qaeda is fairly subdued, compared to 2009 or to 2001 or to 1996.

10:11. “Any and all means to take out” America’s enemies.  Romney fully defends the use of drone technology.

10:09.  Time to divorce Pakistan, Schieffer asks? Romney says no — there’s too many problems to ignore it. “If it falls apart, if it becomes a failed state, there are no weapons there, there are terrorists there… Pakistan is technically an ally, and they’re not acting as an ally right now, and we have some work to do.” He’s going out of his way, though, not to criticize the Obama administration on Pakistan.

10:08.  Still focused on the Muslim world.  Fascinating that in such a close election in Florida, in the state of Florida, and no one’s really discussed Cuba.

U.S. Cuban policy has been dictated by the electoral politics of the state of Florida for decades.  Given the importance of the state in the Electoral College (whichever candidate wins Florida — a moderate state that has voted for both Republicans and Democrats in recent presidential elections — wins 29 electoral votes, more than 10% of the votes a candidate needs to win the 270 electoral votes required for election), both Republicans and Democrats have been loathe to anger the extremely anti-Castro Cuban voters in south Florida, who hold an outsized impact on Florida politics.

Still, it’s interesting that no one’s really engaged on Cuba, especially on the 50th anniversary of the 1962 missile crisis that involved U.S. president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in a showdown over nuclear missiles 90 miles off the coast of Florida.

10:06.  Romney says he will condition aid to Pakistan on benchmarks.  No criticism of the unmanned drone attacks, though, that are alleged to have harmed citizens in north Waziristan.

10:04. Romney now defends the transition out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.  He has, however, attacked the Obama administration in the past for setting that date.  He is now making the case for an aggressive fight in Pakistan?

10:03.  Now we try to move to Afghanistan, but Romney tries to respond to Obama’s charges.  Schieffer says Romney has already launched his own. “Well, that’s probably true.” Someone told him not to attack the moderator like last time against Candy Crowley!

10:02.  First 9/11 reference. Goes to Obama!

10:01.  Obama keeps going back to list the various contradictions in Romney’s past statements.  On a question about a hypothetical Israeli attack.  It’s probably the best place for Obama to make this case, and he’s doing it with the relish of a courtroom prosecutor. It’s effective, although it’s not projecting strength for a sitting president to make such a strong case against his challenger.

10:00. Two-thirds into tonight’s debate and no one has once mentioned the Liberal leadership candidacy of Justin Trudeau.  Trudeaumania (part deux), it seems, has not yet swept the United States.  Seriously, two-thirds of the debate is over and the only major region of discussion has been the Middle East, and really just Syria, Libya, Israel and Iran.  Not even Iraq and Afghanistan.

9:59. Romney rejects the opportunity to talk about a hypothetical call from Netanyahu that Israeli bombers are on the way to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. He says the US-Israeli relationship is such that the United States wouldn’t just get a phone call out of the blue for that, and he’s probably right.

9:56.  “You skipped Israel, when you went to those other nations,” Romney attacks. “We have not dictated to other nations, we have freed other nations from dictators.” A strong line, a powerful line, and I think one of Romney’s best of the night, even though it’s obviously rehearsed.

9:55.  “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran,” Romney says.  It’s true that the Obama administration was very very slow to support the so-called ‘Green revolution’ in 2009 in Iran.

9:53.  Romney is now attacking Obama for an ‘apology tour,’ for talking to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, etc. Standard attack line from the Romney campaign that the Obama administration cares more about diplomacy with its enemies than supporting its allies. “Nothing Governor Romney just said is true,” Obama responds. He calls the ‘apology tour’ line a whopper.

9:52. Obama says the “clock is ticking,” on Iran, but whither Netanyahu’s bomb?

9:51.  Schieffer asks the question and Obama says the reports aren’t true.

9:49.  We learned this weekend from The New York Times that the Obama administration may be on the cusp of initiating public talks with Iran with respect to any potential nuclear weapons program.  It’s unclear how seriously to take those reports at this stage, but it seems clear that a Romney administration would be much more skeptical — not necessarily 100% dismissive, just more skeptical — about pursuing those talks.  I wonder if either candidate will mention it.  I’m surprised Romney hasn’t attacked Obama for it.  Given that he’s receiving confidential briefings at this point of the campaign, it lends credence to the rumor that Romney hasn’t mentioned it.

9:48. If Israel is attacked, we have their back.” Not just culturally, but militarily. Romney is clearly the more hawkish of the two on Israel.

9:47.  “We don’t need a nuclear arms race in the Middle East,” Obama says. Both Obama and Romney take as a given that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a disaster.  But it’s worth considering a counterfactual.

Political theorist Kenneth Waltz famously made the argument in the 1980s that nuclear weapons make countries more responsible in their foreign affairs — the idea is that nuclear-armed countries think long and hard about engaging in armed skirmishes.  Waltz is no hippie peacenik, but rather one of the pillars of neorealism in international relations.

To some extent, we have seen this dynamic at work in the India-Pakistan relationship.  We don’t know what could happen if Pakistan were to crubmle into anarachy, and there’s always the risk that when more countries have nuclear weapons, they will be increasingly easier to obtain on the black market by non-state actors, such as terrorist groups.

Iran, for all its problems, remains significantly more stable as a nation-state than Pakistan.  Although an Iranian nuclear weapon could set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with Israel, Egypt and possibly Saudi Arabia and Turkey all possibly racing to build their own nuclear weapons program, it is not entirely clear that would be as catastrophic as some policymakers believe, and it could, perhaps counterintuitively, lead to a more stable and peaceful Middle East.

 9:46.  Israel itself is headed to the polls on January 22 for early elections to Israel’s unicameral parliament, the Knesset — although prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his center-right Likud party seem likely to win, as of today, his unprecedented public hectoring of the Obama administration may well become an issue in the Israeli election if Obama is reelected.  Earlier this month and in September, Netanyahu has loudly and publicly demanded that the United States dictate ‘red lines’ in the development of the Iranian nuclear weapons program that, if crossed, would risk military action from the United States and/or Israel.  Netanyahu famously made his case to the United Nations late last month with a widely derided cartoon bomb illustration.

9:45.  Back to foreign policy.  Now Israel and Iran.  The first question is whether an attack on Israel should be treated as an attack on the United States. “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked,” Obama says.  That’s not the same thing, of course.

9:44.   I think Mr. Romney hasn’t spent enough time thinking about how our military works.” We have aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Obama is once again lecturing Romney on the military in a way we haven’t seen a Democratic presidential candidate, incumbent or others, do in decades.

9:43.  Sequestration — “it will not happen,” says Obama.

9:42.  Cyber-terrorism! SPACE! Says Obama. Where’s Newt Gingrich when you need him? I do miss the references to lunar bases in presidential debates.

9:41.  Obama brings his attack on the budget back to military spending. “The math simply doesn’t work.” Cybersecurity!

9:40.  Clearly, Canada could run Medicaid more efficiently than Massachusetts. What? We’re still derailed on domestic policy.


9:36.  We’ve now reached the “domestic talking points” stretched into foreign policy sound bytes portion of the debate, for both Obama and Romney.  To be fair, Ezra Klein earlier today noted that the line between domestic and foreign policy is specious.

9:35.  Romney warns that the United States is “on the road to Greece.”

The United States, it’s worth noting, is not Greece.  Greece is trapped in a monetary union and with a monetary policy over which it has virtually no control — unlike the United States, it cannot simply print more money.  Furthermore, Greek debt, unlike U.S. debt, is not a safe have for investors in time of crisis.

However important it may be for the U.S. to trim its budget deficit, it’s a facile comparison.  A better comparison would be to think about Japan, perhaps, and the role of large public debt in what’s been a fairly slow-growth economy for over two decades.  Another better comparison would be the European Union’s share of debt, as a percentage of EU-wide economic output (or even, at this point, China’s growing public debt).  No one knows exactly what would happen if bondholders became alarmed simultaneously about the state of U.S., E.U., Chinese and Japanese debt.  But suffice it to say we’d be dealing with a great deal more economic, political and social misery worldwide than we are dealing with now in Greece (or even, taken together, the various troubled economies on the eurozone periphery).  So the Greece/Spain/Italy comparison for the U.S. fiscal situation is simultaneously too alarmist in the short-term and, potentially, not alarmist enough in the long-term.

9:33.  Romney’s the first candidate to talk about Latin America as a huge opportunity and points to its time zone and shared language as a major point.  He also notes that Latin America’s economy is roughly equivalent to the size of China’s.

9:32.  Former DC mayor Marion Barry tweets: “Governor Romney is sounding awfully moderate tonight.  #Imjustsaying.”

9:31.  Romney calls out the Obama administration’s decision to back away from the promise of missile defense in Poland.

9:30.  Now we turn to America’s role in the world.  A “responsibility and a privilege to promote freedom.” Human rights. First mention and, again, it goes to Romney.  But his message is that in order for America to be strong, it can’t be weak at home, and pivots to a discussion of his domestic points.

9:27.  “We didn’t ask for it, but it’s an honor we have it.” Romney’s view on the mantle of global leadership for the U.S.

9:26.  Of course, no U.S. presidential candidate is going to admit that he/she would have stood by Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Clown question, bro.

9:25.  Egypt itself is in the process of negotiating its own political institutions.  Its new president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, has barely been in office for four months, has only recently asserted the office of the presidency with respect to the powerful Egyptian military in dismissing the longtime Egyptian defense minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the decades-long ‘deep state’ interests of the Egyptian military within key governmental offices, various state-owned industry and courts.  The country will hold its third re-run of its legislative elections sometime early next year, and a constituent assembly is currently drafting a constitution that will define the roles of the president, the prime minister and the legislature going forward.

9:24. RED LINE! On Egypt, not Iran!

9:23.  Halfway through this segment on Syria, and no mention on Lebanon, where a bomb blast ripped through a Christian neighborhood in Beirut just last Friday and where there’s currently an ongoing political crisis.  Not a word about stabilizing Lebanon, which seems much easier than military intervention in Syria.

9:22.  Romney is being cagey on the idea of no-fly zones. He’s saying he doesn’t want to see military involvement on the part of “our troops,” but I’m not sure that’s exactly a denial. He’s keeping his options open with this response.

9:20.  Both candidates are skeptical of military intervention in Syria.  But it seems like neither candidate knows what, effectively, the United States can do to end the civil war there, besides funneling weapons to the Syrian opposition — and we’ve already seen that step could have unintended consequences, as in Mali and Libya.

9:19.  Romney’s big plan for Syria is a council? That’s it? Work with the Saudis and the Qataris? That’s incredibly weak.

9:18.  Eighteen minutes in, and Romney is the first person to say “humanitarian.” Still no mentions of “human rights,” as far as I can tell.

9:17.  The debate turns to the question of the civil war in Syria.  Obama cautions, prudently I think, that military intervention in Syria is a difficult and tricky thing.  The problem is that I don’t see how it’s any more or less tricky than the intervention in Libya.

9:15.  The two candidates just bickered over Russia — Romney didn’t back down on Russia, accused Obama of rose-colored glasses on Putin and on Russian relations.

The (in)famous ‘reset’ of U.S.-Russian relations in 2009 hasn’t really been much of a reset at all, notwithstanding a surprisingly decent working relationship between Obama and former president (and now prime minister) Dmitri Medvedev.  One of the thorniest issues in the next four years of U.S.-Russian policy will be how the U.S. can support former Soviet republics that are currently NATO members or members of the EU and those, such as Ukraine and Georgia, that aren’t currently EU or NATO members, but are keen on seeking membership, without inflaming U.S.-Russian relations.  With a handful of recent elections (Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine) set to boost and/or solidify friendlier relations between Moscow and the countries in its ‘near-abroad’, U.S. relations with the former Soviet republics will remain one of the most delicate issues in U.S. foreign policy.  This is especially true for the strategically located and commodity-rich states of Central Asia, where China is moving fast to build its influence as well.

9:13.  The idea of a status-of-forces agreement would have kept U.S. troops in Iraq, but what neither candidate is talking about is that those troops would not have had immunity in Iraqi courts and would have been a huge target for Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr and Sunni militants alike.

9:10. “The Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” Obama is attacking hard on the idea that Romney’s foreign policy comes straight out of the 1980s. He is also hitting Romney hard for calling for more troops in Iraq. “Every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.” Obama is clearly going to be very aggressive on what Romney’s said in the past — on Iraq, of Afghanistan, on Russia, on nuclear proliferation treaties. He’s unloading the kitchen sink.

9:09. “We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.” The Republican presidential nominee’s words just four years after the end of the Bush administration. That’s perhaps the most daylight Romney’s taken in the entire campaign from the most recent Republican administration.

9:06.  Smart of Romney to give the president credit so immediately for the attack that ended in the death of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

9:05.  Libya is in somewhat of a difficult transition phase these days — each of Tunisia, Libya and Egypt have had growing pains since the fall of their respective longtime autocratic regimes, but Libya has had the most problematic turn.  Libya had a much more brutal time in bringing about the fall of Muammar Gaddafi  than the respect falls of Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.  Now, Libya is also having a much more difficult time in forging a national consensus for its future.  That’s in many ways because Gaddafi never effectively developed much in way of true national institutions in Libya, and also because (like Iraq, in some ways) the country is essentially an artificial construct of three very different regions. To add to the difficulty, many of the arms that NATO countries supplied to the Libya rebel forces have now found their way into the northern breakaway region of Azawad within Mali.  So it’s already an area of concern for the next U.S. administration, and that would have been true even without the 9/11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.

9:04. First question on the night goes to the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Unsurprising, as it’s become the biggest foreign policy issue in the election since the attack.

9:00. Bold blue tie for Obama, a striped red tie for Romney. Edgy choice, Mitt.

8:50.  Earlier today, Bob Schieffer, the moderator of tonight’s event, which is being held in Boca Raton, Florida, announced the six topics and that the debate would focus on each of the following, in 15-minute segments:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red Lines – Israel and Iran
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
  • The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World…

That seems pretty structured to me, and fairly tilted toward the Middle East and the threat of radical Islam at a time when Russia, Africa, Latin America (especially Mexico and Brazil), Europe, India and the greater Asia-Pacific region are just as important as ever.  No segments devoted to international finance, drug policy, world trade, free trade agreements, exports and trade deficits, global health, energy independence human rights, or international law and institutions. We’ll see if those topics come up, though, in the course of the 90-minute debate — many of those topics very much underlie some of the broad themes Schieffer apparently hopes to cover.

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