Five Things to Watch for in Monday’s Foreign Policy Debate

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Gary Coronado / The Palm Beach Post / ZUMA PRESS

Stencils of President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney in the hallway of the E.M. Lynn Residence Hall in Boca Raton, Fla.

On Monday night, just two weeks and a day before the election, President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney will square off in Boca Raton, Fla., for their third debate. The subject matter of this final debate will be foreign policy, focusing mostly on the Middle East, according to the six topics the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS, released two weeks ago.

Monday’s debate is the last opportunity the candidates will have, barring major breaking news, to shake up the race. Romney’s strong performance in the first debate gave him enormous momentum, and Obama’s feisty showing in the second one helped the President take some of it back. The two men enter tonight’s debate essentially tied in the polls nationwide.

Thus far, from criticizing the United Kingdom for its Olympic preparations to calling Russia the biggest threat to America to forgetting to mention U.S. troops serving abroad in his convention acceptance speech, foreign policy has not been a strong suit for Romney. But the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans has hurt Obama in polls of his handling of foreign policy and provided the Romney campaign with its first opportunity to hit Obama on an issue that has otherwise been a strength for the President.

(MORE: Campaign Moves into Final Phase, Driven by Electoral Math)

With few undecided voters remaining, it’s unlikely that one night of foreign policy discussion can change the course of a race that has largely focused on the economy. Still, for its capacity for dramatic moments and terrible flubs — just think how one “Oops” ended Texas Governor Rick Perry’s bid for the GOP nomination — a presidential debate always has the potential to be a game changer. Here are five things to watch for:

1. Benghazi: At the last debate, Romney accused Obama of not calling the attack an “act of terror” until two weeks after the fact. Obama retorted that he uttered the words “acts of terror” the day after, in remarks in the Rose Garden responding to the attack. The debate’s moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, noted that the President was right. “Look up the transcript,” Obama suggested to Romney. The episode left Romney on his heels on his biggest opening against Obama’s foreign policy. Romney has been arguing that the Obama Administration was trying to cover up the Benghazi attack, believed to be the work of an al-Qaeda affiliate, and disguise it as a flash mob because it undermined Obama’s argument that he had “al-Qaeda on the run.” In Monday’s debate, Romney must find a convincing way to make his case, especially since it has emerged in the past week that there had actually been a protest in the area and that initial intelligence reports from Benghazi cited a protest as the inciting incident. Playing the blame game goes only so far with voters. And Schieffer plans to spend at least 15 minutes focusing on the broader issue of the Arab Spring. With much of the Middle East, from Bahrain to Syria, facing instability, I’ve argued that this is an opportunity to ask both candidates what their plans are to deal with the broader issue.

(MORE: Foreign Policy: Big Promises, Harsh Realities)

2. Iran: The New York Times reported on Saturday that the U.S. and Iran had agreed to hold bilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the U.S. elections. But even though the story was sourced to the Obama Administration, the National Security Council was quick to deny that any such agreement existed. Iran also denied the report. But even the hint of talks is sure to yield a question for both candidates about how they’d handle potential bilateral negotiations with Iran. The Obama Administration has long said it would welcome such talks, and a bilateral meeting in 2009 led to a tentative agreement — the closest Iran has ever come to compromise — that quickly fell apart. Israel, on the other hand, has argued that the U.S. should not reward Tehran’s bad behavior and that there should be preconditions on any direct talks. It will be interesting to see if Romney would engage in direct diplomacy or if he would follow Israel’s lead and insist that Iran meet conditions first.

Romney has long argued that he would’ve been tougher on Iran and nicer to Israel if he’d been President these past four years. Obama, in contrast, says that without his willingness to directly engage with Iran — and their refusal to take him up on that offer — he’d never have been able to impose such crippling sanctions. Obama took Iran’s rejection to the world as evidence they were irrational actors and persuaded the European Union, the fourth largest consumer of Iranian oil, to boycott Tehran’s crude. He also cajoled the Russians and Chinese to get behind sanctions. Romney’s strategy on Israel is clear: “no daylight between our two nations.” But his plan for dealing with Iran is less so: Would he send in U.S. planes to strike Iran’s nuclear sites? Or, as his running mate Paul Ryan said, engage in a full-scale war? Would he merely stand by and empower the Israelis to act?  Or would he double down on diplomacy?

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3. The War in Afghanistan: It’s easy to forget, but the U.S. still has 65,000 troops waging a war in Afghanistan. How that war is ended will be a topic in the debate. Thus far Romney has criticized the President’s willingness to set a target date for withdrawal, although he’s said he would follow the same timeline. He says he would listen to the generals and do whatever they recommend. Romney has also said he would never negotiate with the Taliban the way this Administration has, but he has yet to lay out how he sees that country transitioning to full independence without dealing with the Taliban.

4. Trade with China: Romney has said Obama has been too easy on China and that on his first day in office he would declare the nation a “currency manipulator.” But beyond holding them to task on their currency, he hasn’t given much sense of how he’d handle human rights abuses in China or negotiate with the government that basically holds America’s mortgage. Obama argues he’s been plenty tough on the Chinese, taking them to court at the World Trade Organization for unfairly subsidizing their auto parts and tires. He also helped blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng and his family leave China and has refocused U.S. military forces in a much hyped pivot to focus on Asia rather than Europe and the Middle East.

5. The Euro-Zone Crisis: It’s not on the agenda, but one issue that has huge implications for the U.S. economy is the euro-zone crisis. Romney has said little about how he’d address the matter other than mistakenly accusing Spain of profligate spending. Obama unsuccessfully pushed the G-8 to invest more in growth and less in austerity. Europe remains the biggest threat to the U.S. economic recovery, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande, the heads of the two largest economies in the euro zone, are at odds with each other on how to fix their unraveling currency.

MORE: Saving the Euro Zone, One Bank at a Time

167 comments
Joseph Nuttall
Joseph Nuttall

Its sad to see that there are people out there who only want to notice Romney's lies , but ignore the fact that Obamas been lying to us for the past 4 yrs ......Both Obama and Romney are liars !!!!

search4menow
search4menow

@TIME @TIMEPolitics "Romney has said Obama has been too easy on China" What is sending 15k+ jobs over a more harsh way to treat them? LOL

miladevry
miladevry

@time @timepolitics #tight race indeed!!!

Vh Hurtado
Vh Hurtado

just count the number of Romney lies. It's a lot more fun!!

JohnYuEsq
JohnYuEsq

Romney's World =WAR w/ Iran;Cold WAR w/ Russia;WAR PROFITEERING;World WAR III;WAR on Women;WAR on 47%;WAR on Environment;Secret WAR on Middle Class;Nuclear WAR;ARMAGEDDON: Prophecy Fulfilled;Give HOPE a CHANCE. VOTE the DEMOCRATIC TICKET.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

I wonder if in honor of Halloween, Mitt will disguise himself as a moderate again for this debate too much like the first one.

MrObvious
MrObvious

LL is back - I guess with Disqus gone he can get back here with the same ID. Until banned of course.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

I fully expect the GOP to continue their support of the Monster Mash and double down on the Graveyard Smash.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Sad troll. At this point you have a better chance of being elected in PA than Mittens does.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@MrObvious This close to the election I'm sure he'll be so off the wall that he won't be around here long.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@Sue_N I'd just like to know how Mitt Romney plans to crack down on China, at all.

paulejb1
paulejb1

@DonQuixotic 

Really, Don? That's the level of your comments now? That's really sad,

outsider
outsider

@paulejb1 Have you read about the CIA assets that were outed due to Issa's stupidity and politicking? 

Mantis is right. If Romney has any sense at all, he'll drop that line of questioning. Because then it's as simple as asking if playing politics is more important than assets being developed overseas in foreign countries. 

And why would anyone want to spy for the US, if they're at risk as soon as the GOP learns their name? 

Don't forget, this isn't the first time this happened. The bush admin outed Plame too, because they were playing politics. 

This hurts the US internationally, and with the intelligence community. Does winning mean more than the people who are literally at risk for the US? And if so, how do you convince anyone else to help the US?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

No Paule, It's not an issue in the way Fox News would like it to be. And if Romney is smart he will avoid the topic of Benghazi like the plague.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Actually since he committed treason against the US by releasing classified State Department documents shouldn't Darrel Issa be the one resigning? Maybe the moderator can ask Mittens what his thoughts on the matter are?

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1 I'm sure you'd like that, it'd be the only way Romney could win the election.

MrObvious
MrObvious

@DonQuixotic

He'll teach them by making sure more companies set up shop there. There's nothing in his policy ideas that'll reverse this.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1  I was making a joke.  We can't all live up to your standards of copy/pasting links from the same four websites over and over with Demosocialists are evil bold text.

paulejb1
paulejb1

@outsider2011 @paulejb1 

Still wondering why State would release names of assets to anyone? Do you know why State would out their own assets?

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@mantisdragon91 From Paul's link:

But Issa didn't bother to redact the names of Libyan civilians and local leaders mentioned in the cables, and just as with the WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables last year, the administration says that Issa has done damage to U.S. efforts to work with those Libyans and exposed them to physical danger from the very groups that had an interest in attacking the U.S. consulate."Much like WikiLeaks, when you dump a bunch of documents into the ether, there are a lot of unintended consequences," an administration official told The Cable Friday afternoon. "This does damage to the individuals because they are named, danger to security cooperation because these are militias and groups that we work with and that is now well known, and danger to the investigation, because these people could help us down the road."

paulejb1
paulejb1

@mantisdragon91 

LIE ALERT

Bugs is claiming that the House released "classified documents." He is lying.

"Issa posted 166 pages of sensitive but unclassified State Department communications related to Libya on the committee's website afternoon as part of his effort to investigate security failures and expose contradictions in the administration's statements regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans." (Emphasis mine)

http://thecable.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/10/19/issa_s_benghazi_document_dump_exposes_several_libyans_working_with_the_us

MrObvious
MrObvious

@paulejb1

A good funny once might add some humor...spamming the same over and over is nothing but attention whoring.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1 @DonQuixotic What strange claim?  You just commented on the "level of my comments" and then immediately praised yourself for your own childish comments.  There's nothing to back up; you're talking in circles.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1 @DonQuixotic Nobody wants to Paul.  I particularly enjoy when you act like the mature adult while posting political cartoons over and over, or pictures of people with their head up their rear-ends while claiming that's who you're arguing against.  That's the sensible way to act, right?

outsider
outsider

@paulejb1 @outsider2011 Because it was an internal set of documents that only the gov't had access too.Then Issa made it public. No matter how you spin t his, Issa is in the wrong.

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

It doesn't matter who had them first. Did you want the State Department hide info from the head of the Intelligence Committee, for would you hope that he have the common sense to check with them before dumping all this info for the world to see?

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Because the idiot Issa never game the a chance to review and redact the 166 pages of information he posted on the world wide web. .

mantisdragon91
mantisdragon91

Actually it is an issue to any intelligence guy working in the Middle East now that Issa exposed their dirty laundry for the world's viewing pleasure. But by all means. Please oh please Mittens bring up Benghazi.

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@paulejb1 @mantisdragon91 No need to alert us that you lie.

"But Issa didn't bother to redact the names of Libyan civilians and local leaders mentioned in the cables, and just as with the WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables last year, the administration says that Issa has done damage to U.S. efforts to work with those Libyans and exposed them to physical danger from the very groups that had an interest in attacking the U.S. consulate.

"Much like WikiLeaks, when you dump a bunch of documents into the ether, there are a lot of unintended consequences," an administration official told The Cable Friday afternoon. "This does damage to the individuals because they are named, danger to security cooperation because these are militias and groups that we work with and that is now well known, and danger to the investigation, because these people could help us down the road.""

So does this mean we should give Issa the same treatment we've given Manning?

outsider
outsider

@paulejb1 @mantisdragon91 They were not classified. They were sensitive. And hadn't been given to the State to redact. 

It was a typo. 

The bigger point stands. This is the second time the GOP has played politics with the lives of those in the intelligence community working on behalf of the US.