WASHINGTON — The presidential debate Monday highlighted the underlying political problem facing Mitt Romney when it comes to foreign policy.
On the most substantive questions, in the biggest trouble spots, the Republican challenger had trouble explaining what he would do differently from President Obama. Unlike taxes and spending, for instance, where they have sharp differences on levies for the wealthy and budget priorities, Romney shares many of the same broad goals around the world as the president:
Withdraw from Afghanistan. Prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Help overthrow the regime in Syria without committing the US military. Defend Israel. Even on China, while hurling brickbats on a few specifics, they both want to curb anticompetitive practices.
That left Romney with a strategy of presenting himself as a competent and knowledgeable alternative as commander in chief — a test that he appeared to pass — while basing his argument against Obama on leadership style and themes like projecting American strength. He did not provide specific examples of how he would achieve those goals. Instead, his critiques came in bland salvos.
“It’s essential for a president to show strength from the very beginning,’’ Romney declared at one point. At another moment he said, “We have not seen the progress we need to have.’’
Romney’s difficulty developing a specific critique of Obama’s foreign policy allowed the president to speak about his own foreign policy accomplishments forcefully and with clarity, relatively unimpeded. Frequently on the attack, Obama seemed to relish taking Romney to school, chastising him for various seemingly contradictory statements made on the campaign trail over the last year.
“Governor, the problem is, is that on a whole range of issues, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s now Iran, you’ve been all over the map,’’ Obama said.
Clearly the listless Democratic candidate of the first debate had been left far behind. At times Obama took a tone of feigned exasperation, such as his rejoinder to Romney’s oft-stated claim that the US Navy is the smallest it has been since World War I and the Air Force has fewer aircraft since the end of World War II.
The former Massachusetts governor, Obama responded, “hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works.” Then the president launched into what could have qualified as Military 101 to make the case that simple numbers are simplistic.
“We also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed,” Obama said, mockingly. “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.’’
A long segment Monday took a detour through domestic policy: teachers unions, energy, taxes, health care, deficits. Again and again, both candidates flipped questions about foreign policy to domestic subjects. Unless you count Romney’s statement that America’s debt is so bad it puts us on the road to Greece, Romney and Obama scarcely left America’s shores for a 25-minute stretch of the debate.
It was obvious that the lure of the economy and domestic problems proved irresistible for two candidates locked in a dead heat and getting their last opportunity to appear in a high-profile live television event before the election two weeks hence.
“It didn’t seem to be a foreign policy debate,” said Peter Ubertaccio, chairman of political science and international studies at Stonehill College in Easton. “That demonstrates that foreign policy doesn’t rank very highly on the concerns of most people.’’
The debate, with its focus on a subject of perceived weakness for Romney, carried potential upsides for the Republican challenger if he were able to exceed expectations. The former Massachusetts governor set out to demonstrate a more statesmanlike tone, presenting a more moderate image on foreign policy than he did at times during the Republican primary campaign.
But Obama quickly sought to disrupt that approach by staying on the attack, and Romney appeared to have trouble differentiating himself, said Jeremy Pressman, professor of political science at the University of Connecticut specializing in the Middle East.
“On Iran, Syria, and Afghanistan I think he really struggled,’’ he said. “It seemed to be, ‘I’d do what the president is doing, but do it better.’ ”
Pressman also said that Romney appeared to be trying to distance himself from some of the more bellicose statements he has made in the past and the hawkish advisers he has relied on for foreign policy positions – many of whom worked in the previous Republican administration.
“He didn’t embrace them,” Pressman said. “He was much more restrained.”
In March, Romney called Russia our “number one geopolitical foe’’ in an interview on CNN, an assertion that Obama mocked in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention.
In July, a senior Romney campaign adviser said Romney would support Israel if it chose to launch a unilateral strike on Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapon. Soon thereafter, Romney tempered that position, saying he respected Israel’s right to defend itself. Still, the episode left the impression that Romney was prepared to adopt a far more aggressive and potentially warlike tone in foreign affairs.
With Democrats using such episodes to question whether Romney would embark on unpopular missions like former President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Romney appeared to be trying to strike a more deliberate and cautious tone.
China also proved to be tricky territory for Romney. He has consistently pounded Obama with advertising in battleground states, accusing the president of going soft on China by declining to label the country a “currency manipulator.’’
The Obama campaign has struck back repeatedly on Romney’s own extensive business investments to China, both while he ran Bain Capital and in Bain-related investments that he continues to hold in his portfolio.
Parrying Romney attacks that he had not been forceful enough on the world stage and toward Iran, Obama was ready with a zinger that skewered Romney on his China portfolio holdings as America was ramping up sanctions against Iran.
“You were still invested in a Chinese oil company that was doing business with the Iranian oil sector,’’ he said.