When he came to office, Obama's advisers articulated an especially rosy view of the world. Problems could be solved simply by having the president arrive in some foreign capital to address the people. After Obama's 2009 "Cairo speech," in which he outlined his view for relations with the Muslim world, his then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel heralded it as "one of the most significant foreign policy speeches," saying the president "did 20 years’ worth of work ... for advancing America's interests ... We are no longer the issue in that region of the world." Well, it’s 2012 now and the United States is still the issue in that part of the world. After all, it's American embassies—not European embassies—that are being attacked.
Not only does a president's national security view change once in office, but much of foreign policy-making is shrouded from the public that it's hard to know what to zero in on. If we really wanted to get to the heart of how these two men will lead, we'd ask them more questions about the attributes required to handle these issues, instead of asking them to repeat well-worn talking points. We'd ask them about what crisis they've been through and how it tested them, how they assimilate information, who’d they pick to be on their staff, and how quickly they adapt. Any moderator who asked those questions would be criticized as too airy, but they're the questions you'd ask if you think about what a president actually has to do in office.
The New York Times reports that the United States is contemplating new talks with the Iranians over their nuclear program. This is likely to prompt a talk about talk. Gov. Romney will charge that the president is naive about the possibility of working with Iran. But the reality is that the president has not relied on talk alone. Obama has overseen a large-scale cyber-war against the country and has worked steadily with U.S. allies to squeeze the Iranian economy through sanctions.
This is, by far, the most important immediate foreign policy question: Which man do you want to manage the delicate mess? On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile showdown, we know that avoiding war requires patience, the willingness to deal with and sometimes ignore your advisers who come with biases of their own.
The skirmishing about Libya will be more about trust than the troubled country itself. Is the president trying to hide something? Romney fixated on his language during the last debate, over-eager to catch him in a fib. Though Romney focused on the wrong phrase—Obama had said "war on terror"—it was clear from the president was trying to dodge something. The voter asked Obama a direct question: Who was responsible for not providing security at the consulate? The president never answered, choosing instead to shame Romney for suggestion that he was acting politically. He better come with a better answer Monday night.
Romney, for his part, has been so eager to criticize the president on Libya he has overshot his critique twice. At one point in the second encounter, he seemed to claim that the president's fundraising trip to Nevada somehow hampered the questioning of witnesses on the ground in Benghazi, as if the president were the one there holding the pen and notepad. He better come with a more credible line of attack.
The debate over China will round out the list of the most likely foreign policy flash points. There are so many reasons that China should be an important issue, but the one that will matter most can be found in the key swing state of Ohio. Obama's ground generals in Ohio want him to talk about China because blue collar voters can be moved if one candidate can be blamed for helping China steal American jobs. Obama hit this hard in the last debate: "When he talks about getting tough on China, keep in mind that Gov. Romney invested in companies that were pioneers of outsourcing to China and is currently investing in countries—in—in companies that are building surveillance equipment for China to spy on its own folks. That’s—governor, you’re the last person who’s going to get tough on China."
Romney's retort is that he will name China as a currency manipulator on the first day he's in office. (Of course, even Romney's surrogate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio says that posture will start a trade war with Beijing, which will complicate all his other days in office.) But more to the point: Are voters in Ohio moved by the currency manipulation line? When Romney frames it as making sure China will play by the rules, he seems to be gaining some traction. In the Pew poll, Romney holds a 9-point lead over Obama on dealing with China’s trade policies (49 percent to 40 percent). Among independent voters, Romney holds a 16-point advantage (50 percent to 34 percent).
For 90 minutes Monday night, the candidates will tour the world. It might get confusing. They’re going to cover a lot of time zones. After tonight, they’re going to turn the telescope around and forget the rest of the world. They’ll even forget 41 states in their own country in favor of the battleground states. Eventually, they might even make the whole contest about one state: Ohio. As Ohio goes, so goes the nation and the world.