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

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Like Obama, Romney has ruled out sending U.S. troops into Syria. And his willingness to arm the rebels is not so straightforward. He has said he would provide the weapons indirectly through Arab allies, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Those countries are already arming the rebels, and U.S. officials monitoring the situation in Syria now say the bulk of those weapons are ending up in the hands of the Islamists.

On Afghanistan, Obama has said he will withdraw U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014. Romney’s position on Afghanistan has shifted over the past few years, beginning with support for a nation-building effort in 2009 to a more recent reconsideration of such policies. Today, Romney agrees with the administration’s timeline for withdrawal as a goal, but he criticizes Obama for announcing it publicly. 

Libya

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya is also certain to come up again, giving Romney another chance to go after the administration’s response to the attack after he awkwardly misfired in last week’s debate. Romney’s surrogates in Congress in the past week have continued to charge the White House with repeatedly shifting its explanations on the attack in what they suggest may have been a bid to avoid spoiling the president’s tough-on-terrorism narrative highlighted by the killing of bin Laden.

However, leaks over the weekend of the CIA’s analysis backed up the administration’s early statements on the attacks. That could bolster Obama’s position, even as the release of the names of Libyan allies by Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa’s (R-Calif.) gave Obama’s campaign another opportunity to blast the GOP with playing politics with national security.

Trade

Romney has also played offense on China and trade, arguing simultaneously that the Obama administration hasn’t been tough enough on China’s currency manipulation nor has he negotiated new free trade agreements with other countries. Obama has pointed to his administration’s repeatedly filing trade claims against China, in areas like auto parts and tires, and his campaign has repeatedly attacked Romney as someone who has benefited personally from companies outsourcing work to China through his investments at Bain Capital.

Romney also has faced criticism from his own party and supporters over his plan to label China a currency manipulator on “day one” and impose tariffs, with the business community fretting that a trade war could ensue that would hurt the economy more than help it.

But the get-tough-on-China message is one Romney’s campaign has pounded away at, especially in key states like Ohio, where polls have shown he continues to trail even as he has closed the gap nationally.

Obama has often pivoted on trade questions to tax policies, arguing to shift tax breaks from companies that ship jobs overseas to companies that bring jobs back to the United States.

The Romney rejoinder has generally been that Obama’s already had his chance to implement his policies, and it’s time for someone else.

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