The third and final U.S. presidential debate takes place Monday in Boca
Raton, Florida, devoted entirely to foreign policy. It remains to be
seen what impact it will have on voter assessments of President Barack
Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney less than three weeks before
the U.S. election.
In their first two debates, both men sparred over the Middle East, the
killing of Americans in Libya, the U.S. response to Syria's civil war,
Iran's nuclear ambitions, and trade with China.
Their final encounter could bring a somewhat deeper examinations of
these issues. For President Obama, a key question is whether his
perceived advantage on national security matters will bring any more
strength in polling numbers.
Dewey Clayton, professor of political science at the University of
Louisville in Kentucky, says questions about how President Obama has
handled Libya and Syria have given Romney an opening.
"There is clearly plenty of fodder out here to have a spirited debate on
foreign policy, I think clearly it will give both candidates an
opportunity to talk about how they may do things differently, whether it
is withdrawing troops from Afghanistan or whether it is just clearly
talking about maintaining a strong national defense," said Clayton.
On Libya, Romney has been on the attack, asserting that the president
has mishandled events there and in the broader Middle East.
"There were many days that passed before we knew whether this was a
spontaneous demonstration or actually whether it was a terrorist attack.
And there was no demonstration involved, it was a terrorist attack and
it took a long time for that to be told to the American people," said
Romney at the second presidential debate at New York's Hofstra
Some analysts say Americans, and people in other countries, have been
left wondering how Mitt Romney's approach would differ from President
Obama on, for example, Iran's nuclear program or the U.S. response to
the Arab Spring.
Danielle Pletka, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
"I think for outsiders who are trying to get a grip on either what does
the next four years mean for us if Barack Obama is re-elected, what does
the next four years mean for us if Mitt Romney is elected, you're not
quite sure where it's going," Pletka said.
Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution Saban Center for
Middle East Policy, says each candidate constructed a narrative about
the Middle East: Governor Romney warning about American weakness,
President Obama emphasizing closure of an earlier chapter of U.S.
Cofman suggests this potential negative side effect.
"The notion of trying to use events in the Middle East to build a
narrative that is helpful to your election campaign, might well be
dismaying to people living in the region, to see events on the ground
that are of such magnitude for Arab citizens treated as, in essence, a
political football in our election campaign," Cofman explained.
Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, points
to what he calls a bigger question hanging over each side's arguments.
"There is a bigger question here about what is the role of U.S.
leadership post-Arab Spring and how do others in the region perceive
that leadership," said Hamid.
On the campaign trail, President Obama emphasizes accomplishments such
as ending the U.S military role in Iraq, drawing down U.S. forces in
Afghanistan, eliminating Osama bin-Laden, and decimating al-Qaida's
Governor Romney says Obama's Middle East policy is "unraveling", while
on other issues such as trade relations with China he pledges to get
tougher than the president has been.
Daniel Serwer, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International
Studies, says the most serious foreign policy discussion may not come
until after the election.
level of generality and the level of polarization don't lend themselves
to a lot of serious discussion," said Serwer. "In an odd sort of way,
you see that in the Romney stance, because Romney while criticizing the
administration on Iraq, on Afghanistan, on Iran has put forward very few
distinct proposals on those subjects and the reason for that is it is
hard to think up better things to do."
While the American public remains primarily focused on the economy and
job creation, opinion surveys suggest Mitt Romney may have chipped away
somewhat at President Obama's dominance on national security and foreign
A CNN poll after the second debate showed Obama leading Governor Romney
49 to 47 percent on the question of ability to handle foreign affairs.