President Obama and Governor Romney met for their third and final debate Monday night, dealing with foreign policy. Mr. Romney focused on reassuring viewers that he would not rush to use American troops in Syria or other conflict zones except "as a last resort." He largely applauded the administration for its handling of the civil war in Libya, the use of drones to deal with Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders, and attempts to hold China accountable for its currency manipulation. Both leaders lamented the tragedy of the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the American Consulate in Benghazi Libya.
They both agreed that the Iranian government was beginning to respond to comprehensive international sanctions intended to turn back the nuclear weapons program the, and they both spoke strongly in support of Israel. Mr. Romney argued that the US should help get weapons to anti-government fighters in Syria to address the incredible suffering brought by the government there, but he had no answer to the concern expressed by President Obama that those weapons could end up being used against Turkey or Israel or the United States. Overall, there were no discernible differences between them in their overall priorities for US foreign policy, as Governor Romney moderated many of his earlier positions on the use of force and the role of diplomacy in avoiding conflict. In particular, he backed away from his previous statements on keeping troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, as President Obama winds down those grinding conflicts.
There were important problems that did not arise during the debate: how to deal with the Eurozone economic crisis and shield the US from the drag imposed on our economy; the continued grinding poverty in much of Africa, and the burden of infectious disease there; and the terrible drug war that continues to be waged in Mexico, largely because of the ongoing drug problem in the United States. There was no discussion about the 45 million abortions performed worldwide every year.
But as the two candidates focused on the challenges of the Arab Spring, and touched on the difficulties posed by the world economic situation, there was little reflection on the very first subject raised in the debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer started the evening by mentioning that Monday was the 50th anniversary of President John Kennedy's announcement that nuclear missiles had been identified in Cuba. As much as the world suffers under the continued weight of religious and other conflict, little note was made of the fact that the number of wars is dramatically lower now than it was 30 to 50 years ago.
Until twenty years ago, every child in America had to endure periodic drills addressing the possibility of nuclear attack from Soviet Russia. Thousands of nuclear warheads were aimed at US cities, and conversely at those across the Soviet empire. Twenty years ago there was no treatment for AIDS, as it marched across Sub-Saharan Africa. In many respects, the world is a significantly more interdependent and peaceful place than it has been in the last 500 years. After years of war in Iraq, largely opposed by Democrats and the rest of the world community, it appeared that the US had indeed turned a corner on attitudes about the use of force that had been the centerpiece of Bush foreign policy. Both candidates talked about respecting religious differences, and it was possible as a Catholic to come away with a sense that perhaps the divisions so evident in American domestic politics now may in fact be evaporating in our international relations. Perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize committee got it right, when they recognized President Obama for turning the corner on the unilateral use of force in international affairs.