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Debate Preview: Looking Tough, but Not Too Tough, on Foreign Policy

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Romney has said repeatedly that he will prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability, as opposed to Obama’s pledge to prevent Iran from developing an actual nuclear weapon. But both refuse to say what Iranian action would trigger a U.S. military response. Romney has said his “red line” for Iran is the same as Obama’s and that he believes the confrontation with Iran can be solved without the use of force — a position that tracks with that of the administration.

The difference, according to Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan, is about having a credible threat of military force. “Under a Romney administration, we will have credibility on this issue,” the Wisconsin Republican said in the vice presidential debate.

A New York Times story, meanwhile, detailing talks between the United States and Iran that would take place after the elections, seemed to give some credence to the White House position that its policy on Iran of tough sanctions and engagement is working, although the White House denied that there was such a deal. But the presidents’ advisers on Sunday pointed to the plummeting Iranian currency under tough new sanctions this year as a sign the president’s policies are working, which they credited to Obama’s rallying the world against the Iranian regime.

Other Middle East hot spots are sure to get airtime tonight, including Israel, Syria and Libya.

In his bid to attract the country’s evangelical Christian voters and Jewish support, Romney has accused the president of “throwing Israel under the bus” on issues ranging from Iran to peace talks with the Palestinians. He also has said he would arm the rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar-al Assad, and he says he would send a U.S. aircraft carrier into the eastern Mediterranean to bolster U.S. forces in confronting Iran.

Both support a transition to democracy in the wake of the revolutions that swept the region last year. But both are wary of Islamic extremists taking advantage of the political turmoil.

Obama’s efforts to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians foundered when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to halt Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank. It is far from clear whether Obama would try to revive the peace process in a second term. In private, Romney has said he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as irreconcilable and would manage it as best as possible, as opposed to trying to resolve it. And Romney’s trip to Israel this summer infuriated Palestinians after he suggested the economic disparity between Israelis and Palestinians was due to “culture.”

Obama has adopted a cautious approach to the civil war in Syria, providing rebels there with non-lethal assistance, such as communications and medical equipment. But the administration is reluctant to provide the rebels with weapons because it can’t be sure whether they would end up in the hands of anti-Western Islamist fighters.

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