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

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

President Barack Obama and GOP challenger Mitt Romney face off for the last time in tonight’s foreign policy debate with starkly different challenges as they near the end of their fight to be the next commander in chief.

Obama, who has seen his once-sizable lead in national polls vanish, will try to press what has been an advantage on foreign affairs to make the case that Romney’s inexperience on foreign policy risks more war, more blood and more treasure.

Romney must appear tough, but not reckless, as he squares what has been more bellicose rhetoric, particularly during the Republican primary season, with a public that has soured on foreign military engagements. And both candidates will try to pick their spots to pivot back to the issue on most voters’ minds: the economy.

War Weary

The president’s campaign in particular hopes to capitalize on the nation’s disenchantment with war.

“After a decade of war, both in Afghanistan and Iraq, the most important thing we have to do now is… bring American troops home and battle for America’s future economically,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, previewing the president’s message on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. He said that while the debate would be about foreign policy, “the most important thing we can do as a country on our foreign policy is strengthen our economy here at home.”

The president’s advisers argue that if Romney had been in charge, the United States might still be at war in Iraq, would have no end date in sight in Afghanistan and would not have made defeating Osama bin Laden the top priority.

Indeed, gearing up for the debate, Obama’s campaign charged Sunday that Romney had a “commitment to endless war.”

They have tied the cost of the wars — and Romney’s plan to spend $2 trillion more than Obama on defense in the next decade — back to the economy, by saying that would make the deficit worse or sap investments in rebuilding at home. 

Tough, but Not Too Tough

Romney’s rhetoric has been sharper than the president’s, particularly in his views of the Middle East, which is expected to take up two-thirds of the allotted time tonight. But beneath the rhetoric, Romney’s policy prescriptions for Middle East hot spots don’t differ that much from what Obama is already doing.

Romney’s overall message — and a theme of his book “No Apology” — is that Obama has projected an image of weakness in the region, inviting political actors to challenge U.S. dominance.

There may be no more important debate than what consists of the “red line” for a U.S. military strike on Iran.

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