The final presidential debate focused disproportionately on the Middle East: Four of the six segments were on the region, with just two on other topics (one about the U.S. role in the world, the other about China). The European crisis got no mention, nor did India, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, or Australia. In contrast, Egypt was mentioned 11 times, Libya 12 times, Iraq 22 times, Pakistan 25 times, Syria 28 times, Afghanistan 30 times, Israel 34 times, and Iran 47 times.
Barack Obama has a weak record in the Middle East, but one would not learn this from the debate, in which Mitt Romney praised Obama’s achievements (“It’s wonderful that Libya seems to be making some progress”), agreed with Obama more than he disagreed, and rarely pointed out the president’s failings. Presumably, Romney took this mild approach to establish his likability, competence, and suitability for the top office.
When asked about Egypt, Romney digressed and moved to discussing the U.S. economy. When asked about American’s role in the world, he touted the achievements of fourth-graders in Massachusetts during his governorship. Perhaps his recurring emphasis on the economy will win over the elusive undecideds, but it left this viewer frustrated.
The Libya topic was Romney’s great surprise and his missed opportunity. Asked a softball question about the mistakes made in the aftermath of the attack on Benghazi on September 11, he talked about better education, gender equality and other worthy humanitarian goals — but ignored the opportunity to establish that the Obama administration is not only inept but engaged in fabrications about the events. Most agonizingly, Romney congratulated Obama for taking out Osama bin Laden without noting that this accomplishment did limited good, for al-Qaeda still had the ability to attack and kill Americans in Benghazi.
In terms of policy, Obama made some statements about Iran worthy of note: “As long as I’m president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon. . . . A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security, and it is a threat to Israel’s national security. . . . We are going to take all options necessary to make sure [the Iranians] don’t have a nuclear weapon.” Oddly, Romney replied with a detailed program of actions (such as indicting Ahmedinejad under the U.N.’s Genocide Convention) but did not make parallel statements of intent.
Like senators who vote leftwards for six years but then campaign as moderates during election season, Obama presented himself tonight and in the other debates as profoundly different from the president he has been. Someone not versed in his ideology and his record would not realize his distaste for a powerful United States (e.g., “I said if I got bin Laden in our sights I would take that shot”). He sounded like a nationalist, making punchy patriotic statements, speaking with a smooth eloquence, and showing himself at ease and in control. The question is, how many people will be fooled by this performance?