Foreign policy debate: Too much agreement


In Monday night's debate, Mitt Romney's mission was to demonstrate the clear contrasts between his foreign policy and President Obama's. Knowing this, Obama's strategy was to show that Romney's foreign policy ideas were either wrong or not very different from his own.

Through most of the 90-minute debate, Romney's policies left him open to Obama's best line -- thanking Romney for agreeing with the major points of Obama's foreign policy.

Romney agreed with Obama's policies on Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. On the first question -- about the controversy surrounding the Obama administration's mishandling of the attack on our consulate in Libya -- Obama asserted that when the call came in, his administration did everything it could to protect the people in harm's way. Romney didn't dispute this, even though American strike aircraft based in Italy could have been over Benghazi in an hour or less, but weren't ordered in during the seven-hour attack.

Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS asked what each candidate would do if Afghan forces weren't ready to take over when American troops were withdrawn in 2014. Romney replied that the Afghans would be ready and that the withdrawal would take place as planned. Obama only added that the withdrawal would be made in a "responsible manner."

On Syria, Romney dismissed the idea of American military intervention and proposed to arm the opposition, taking care not to arm those who might later use those weapons against us or our allies. Obama said almost the same, emphasizing help for the Syrian opposition.

Romney was most effective when he attacked Obama for weakening America's standing with our allies and our enemies. He condemned Obama's "apology tour" of the Middle East and criticized Obama for not supporting the near-rebellion in Iran in 2009. Romney's best moment came when he said he'd show Russian President Vladimir Putin "more backbone", not more "flexibility," as Obama famously and furtively promised Putin's protege before a hot mic.

Obama was constantly on the attack. He accused Romney of being all over the map, of proposing a "wrong and reckless" foreign policy, and was dismissive and almost as rudely contemptuous of Romney as Vice President Biden had been of Rep. Paul Ryan in the vice presidential debate. When Romney criticized Obama's plans to cut $1 trillion from military spending, Obama claimed that the cuts wouldn't be that large and that Romney wanted to spend $2 trillion on things the military didn't want. Romney defeated that argument by pointing out that the navy had only 285 ships -- fewer than the 313 ships the Navy said was a minimum -- and that the Air Force's aircraft were older and fewer in number than at any time since it was established in 1947.

At one point, moderator Bob Schieffer asked what each candidate would do upon receiving a call from Israel's prime minister informing us that Israeli bombers were on the way to attack Iran. Obama said he would stand with Israel. Romney said the same, but added that such a call would never be necessary if he were president. The implication was that his close relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu would mean that he would know Israel's intent before it acted, whereas Obama would not.

When faced with the question of Iran's nuclear weapons program, both said that they would not permit Iran to have nuclear weapons and agreed that sanctions were the way to proceed. What Romney didn't say was that the sanctions hadn't yet slowed, far less stopped, the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Although Romney didn't demonstrate clear differences with Obama on many important issues, he did succeed in establishing that he has a clearer grasp than the president of the threats America faces. That knowledge is the essential foundation of leadership.

Jed Babbin was appointed deputy undersecretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."

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