This article originally appeared online at Al Jazeera English.
The foreign policy debate is actually the least influential of the three major debates held during a presidential election year. The reason is because Americans have an appallingly low knowledge of world events and geography that does not directly involve where the US has deployed troops. Views on foreign policy are much more geared towards ideological leanings, as opposed to the economy or domestic policy where voters might draw upon their own direct experiences to determine the veracity of a candidate’s answers.
Americans who will tune into to tonight’s third and final debate aren’t so much looking for questions to be answered as much as they are looking to see which candidate projects the kind of image and personality that makes people comfortable. The candidates themselves have a different job. Since the debates aren’t likely to shift the electoral polls, the goal is provide enough zingers, powerful moments and one liners to dominate the news narrative for the 24 – 48 hours after the debate.
With that in mind, here are the two main areas where Obama and Romney will try to dominate the narrative, and what that might mean for the campaign going forward.
1. Libya – Americans have been oddly attuned to Libya since the fall of Gaddafi last spring and the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi attack last month. This is one area where real answers might be key to satisfy a curious and concerned public. Obama’s withering chastisement of Mitt Romney for politicising Libya in the second debate was one of is most powerful moments in the campaign. However, he will have to continue that impassioned mix of poise, temerity and disgust to handle a more detailed discussion of Libya with Mitt Romney this evening. Mitt Romney’s main challenge is to make Libya part of a believable larger narrative. It is one thing to point out that Americans died due to bureaucratic ineptitude on the part of the Obama State Department, that’s a case many Americans are willing to believe. It is entirely another issue to argue that the Benghazi attack represents an overall failing of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. The ability to make that argument will determine who wins the narrative on this issue.
2. The Economy as Foreign Policy – Foreign policy is not a strong suit for any challenger in a presidential race. The sitting president can always draw upon their role as Commander in Chief, with access to sensitive and top-secret materials, as a go-to answer whenever their decisions are called into question. Consequently Mitt Romney’s best chance at success tonight is to turn the economy, an issue where he does have a comparative advantage, into a foreign policy issue.
This is where Mitt Romney makes the argument that Obama’s borrowing of funds from China to pay for the economic stimulus package endangered American national security. He will also argue that American dependence on foreign oil is a national security issue and more drilling must be done in the US. In the case of Barack Obama he must be prepared for this line of attack and argue forcefully that the American recession is ending based on his domestic policy and not hand-outs from abroad. Moreover, he needs to point out that Mitt Romney in his business days and as governor of Massachusetts was cozy with China and now he has changed his tune as a candidate. The ability of the either of these men to make or defend themselves about China is less important than their ability to make strong cases about the economy and national security.