Questionable progress amid mounting casualties in Afghanistan. A bloody civil war in Syria. Escalating tensions with Russia. A freshly assertive China worrying its neighbors. Iran defiantly pursuing its nuclear program. The killing of the American ambassador to Libya. Mitt Romney will have his pick of targets Monday night at his third and final debate with President Barack Obama, a faceoff focused on world affairs.
It's not the top issue on many voters' minds (that would be the economy, of course). But aides to both campaigns say voters need to be comfortable with the idea of their preferred candidate representing the country overseas—and responding to a literal life-or-death crisis.
Romney's mission seems straightforward: Convince any doubting voters that he can handle foreign policy. But Romney comes into the debate effectively the underdog, and not just because he isn't the commander in chief. Some of his forays into world affairs have foundered on avoidable missteps that at times have left him looking as awkward on the world stage as a very small dog trying to bite a watermelon.
Obama joked Thursday about his rival's best-known foreign policy struggle: a trip this summer to Britain, Israel and Poland that helped raised Romney's profile but was marred by headlines about gaffes.
"World affairs are a challenge for every candidate," Obama said at the Alfred E. Smith charity dinner in New York. "Some of you guys remember, after my foreign trip in 2008, I was attacked as a celebrity because I was so popular with our allies overseas. And I have to say, I'm impressed with how well Gov. Romney has avoided that problem."
At the debate, Obama plans to employ a strategy that calls for trying to make Romney look like a risky bet, while emphasizing his own successes (as Obama joked at the dinner: "Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden").
But you can cut out the smug chuckling, Obama fans: The political firestorm over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, has come as the president's poll numbers on foreign policy have slumped. An NBC/Wall Street Journal survey released Sunday found that 49 percent of registered voters approved of Obama's handling of world affairs—the same as one month ago, but down from 54 percent approval and 40 percent disapproval in August. And the president's lead over Romney on who would make a better commander in chief slipped: He was up 44 percent to 41 percent compared to 47 percent to 39 percent one month ago.
And Obama isn't always sure-footed: Republicans, led by Romney, have hammered him for describing the bloody unrest in the Middle East as "bumps in the road" to democracy, for example. And the president earlier this year apologized to Poland's president after he referred to a "Polish death camp" that was on Polish soil but was built and operated by the German Nazis.
Against this backdrop, some foreign policy analysts have suggested that the two candidates differ mostly in symbol, not substance, when it comes to foreign affairs. There is some truth to this: On certain key issues, they don't disagree nearly as much as one, or both, of the candidates insist that they do. And when challengers become incumbents they often (re)discover the value of pragmatism. But on a handful of issues, a Romney administration could look sharply different from an Obama second term. Either way, here are some of the likely fights we'll see on Monday night.
Iran's nuclear program
Obama and Romney agree on the need for tough economic sanctions, backed with the threat of military force, to keep Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon. But each has a different "red line"—the point at which he would be willing to take the country to war.
The key distinction: Obama says Iran cannot be allowed to build a nuclear weapon—and insists that the United States and its allies will know if it tries to put one together, and will act to prevent it. Romney says Iran cannot be allowed to have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
Romney's position is in line with that of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly pressed the Obama administration to take a harder approach with Iran. It also sets a lower threshold for military action. Romney says he favors tougher sanctions than the ones Obama has approved, and insists that the president's threats to go to war as a last resort haven't been credible.
Obama has repeatedly said that the United States and its allies still have time to reach a diplomatic solution to the standoff, while warning that the window is closing. He has suggested that Romney may want to trigger another war in the Middle East. He has also underlined that the sanctions on Iran have never been tougher—while working to minimize their impact on America's allies. (There has been ample reporting, too, about how Obama continued George W. Bush's "Olympic Games" cyberwarfare programs against Iran.)
In a dramatic development, The New York Times reported Saturday that Iran and the Obama administration agreed "in principle" to hold their first one-on-one talks after the election. "It's not true," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
But Vietor also said "we would be prepared to meet bilaterally."
The current multilateral diplomatic efforts group the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council—the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia—plus Germany on one side and Iran on the other.
China and trade
Obama and Romney have spent months battling over who would be tougher on China's allegedly unfair economic policies. The issue has particular appeal in places like Ohio—arguably the most important state in the election—where Beijing is blamed for the loss of manufacturing jobs.
The big difference here has to do with whether or not to formally designate China as a currency manipulator—formally, because all of Washington basically agrees that Beijing keeps the yuan artificially low, which in turn keeps the cost of its exports low relative to their American competition. Romney says he'll impose that designation on the first day of his presidency, setting in motion a process that could see retaliatory tariffs imposed on Chinese goods.
Obama has warned that may trigger a trade war, and that his approach of applying pressure on China has led Beijing to let its currency appreciate. The president has also emphasized trade actions against China on his watch, like new tariffs on Chinese tires. And aides note that Romney has not publicly asked John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, to bring to a vote legislation already approved by the Senate that would designate China a currency manipulator.
It's common for campaign trail promises to get tough on China to evaporate after inauguration, but at least one expert thinks Romney would follow through.
"It wasn't an offhand comment on the campaign trail, but instead a frequently repeated commitment, so I don't see how he could back away from it," Tony Fratto, a former spokesman for the Bush White House and Treasury Department, told Yahoo News.
"Being branded a manipulator will be very embarrassing for China, and so it will take some work to repair the relationship. It's possible China could backtrack in other areas in reaction to the designation, including going after the commercial activities of U.S. firms in China," Fratto, now the managing partner at the Hamilton Place Strategies consulting group, went on to say. "At the end of the day, designation or not, China should be expected to move ahead at the pace we've seen on currency flexibility."
Romney, who dubbed Russia "without question, our No. 1 geopolitical foe," would "reset the Obama reset" policy of improving ties with Moscow, a campaign aide told Yahoo News. The Republican nominee would take a more confrontational line with President Vladimir Putin (who himself has taken a more confrontational line with the United States since taking office—again). Look for Romney to highlight Obama's caught-on-tape moment, in March 2012 talks with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, promising that he would "have more flexibility" on issues like missile defense after the election.
"So, wait, how would Romney have supplied our troops on the front lines in Afghanistan?" an Obama campaign aide asked Yahoo News. The White House has frequently said that the "reset" helped convince Moscow to keep air supply lines open at a time when Pakistan shut ground routes. Still, "we often disagree with the Russians and are clear when we do so," the aide said.
Anthony Cordesman, a well-regarded expert on national security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, doubts that either candidate will take a significantly harder line.
"There is nothing to be gained by an open confrontation with Russia or with posturing with Russia," Cordesman told Yahoo News by telephone. "The Obama administration has backed away from Putin to the extent that it can back away. The reset, to some extent, has been overtaken by a sort of nationalist tilt on the part of Putin. But when you think of it in practical terms, engagement with Russia is not something that can be overtaken by events."
Obama has repeatedly accused Romney of not having spelled out his strategy for withdrawing the United States from the war in Afghanistan, now in its 12th year. But the Republican has endorsed a NATO-crafted timetable that calls for removing combat forces by the end of 2014. And the president's strategy calls for negotiating the continued presence of a residual force to train Afghan troops and police and carry out counterterrorism missions.
Still, look for Obama to press Romney to clarify his exit strategy. For one thing, it's good politics for the president to emphasize his withdrawal plan. Sixty percent of Americans say the nation's troops should leave as soon as possible, according to a survey from the Pew Center. Just 35 percent say they should stay until the country is stable.
The partisan breakdown offers more clues as to why Obama would want voters to think there is a big gap between him and Romney. Even Republicans are split 48-48 on that same withdrawal question. And 46 percent of independents say the president is handling the withdrawal correctly. Of those who don't, a mere 14 percent say he's pulling troops out too quickly.
Libya and the Arab Spring
Republicans have hit Obama hard on the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including the American ambassador. The headline-grabbing assault is bound to come up—and Romney is eager, aides say, to relitigate the issue after a wobbly performance on the subject in the candidates' second debate.
In that session, Romney questioned whether Obama had described the attack as an "act of terror" and was plainly surprised to learn that the president had done so in his first public remarks on the crisis, on Sept. 12.
But questions remain about the administration's evolving public explanation for what happened. Intelligence officials branded the attack as terrorism on day one, but senior administration figures initially hesitated to use the word "terrorism" and, for nearly a week, pinned the blame on Muslim anger at an Internet video that ridiculed Islam.
Anger at that video did feed angry protests that led to demonstrators overrunning the American Embassy in Cairo. The State Department has said there was no corresponding protest in Benghazi. Still, Republicans have made the argument that the administration sought to play down the intelligence and security failures leading up to the attack by seeming to pin the violence on an unruly mob rather than organized extremists. And they have pressed the administration to explain why requests for more security at the consulate in Benghazi were rejected in Washington.
"The administration fumbled this. It should have been possible to provide a much clearer story earlier," Cordesman told Yahoo News. "But it is absolutely impossible for an administration to be accountable for what happens in one consulate."
Cordesman went on: "Security officers always ask for more. But we live in an era of cutbacks and restraints. If we're going to have effective diplomats they're going to have to take risks, and when they take risks there are going to be casualties."
Romney can be expected to point to the events in Libya as part of a broader assault on Obama's handling of the Arab Spring uprisings.
"He can try," an Obama campaign official told Yahoo News. The aide, who requested anonymity to discuss debate preparations, said the president will point to contradictions in Romney's most sweeping remarks on the subject, perhaps by using the Republican nominee's words in an Oct. 8 speech to the Virginia Military Institute. The aide said Romney seemed to propose a massive aid package for the Middle East along the lines of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II but then decreed that the aid should be conditional. "And honestly, making aid conditional on keeping peace with Israel and moving towards democratization? That's what we're doing now," the Obama aide said.
Republicans have also linked the attack in Benghazi to al-Qaida. Clear evidence hasn't yet emerged tying the two, though the White House itself has said an offshoot may have taken part. This Republican line of argument appears to be an effort to blunt Obama's signal national security success, the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Democrats have complained loudly that Republicans are politicizing a national security crisis. But the president's allies should get off the fainting couch: Earlier this year, the Obama campaign released an ad questioning whether Romney would have given the order to conduct the raid that killed bin Laden.
There are many other issues that could arise Monday night. Romney is almost sure to accuse Obama of having "apologized for America," a favorite—and false—attack from conservatives. Obama is virtually certain to accuse Romney of wanting to leave a large number of combat troops in Iraq, even though his own administration tried and failed to negotiate an agreement to keep a residual force there. They will spar over relations with Israel: Romney accusing the administration of shortchanging that staunch ally's security with its approach to Iran, Obama quoting senior Israeli officials saying that defense relations have never been better. And Romney could accuse the president of having done too little to help an insurgency against Syria's Bashar Assad, even though his own policy broadly resembles the president's.
For Cordesman, this is mostly sound and fury that, come January, will signify little.
"Barring some drastic change in the outside world, American foreign policy by the end of January is going to look surprisingly the same no matter who is elected," he said. "The fact is, this is not a campaign where—once you cut through the very different words these candidates sometimes use—there will be a major difference on Iran, Israel or even China for that matter."
Once you're president, Cordesman said, "you have to be practical. And you have to adopt some kind of pragmatic approach to the issues. [Foreign policy] is simply too dangerous to approach from some sort of ideological standpoint."