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World

Opinion: Foreign policy takes a back seat

In the final US election TV debate, the topic was supposed to be foreign policy. But DW's Christina Bergmann says the candidates aren't far apart on the issues, and anyway, everyone is more interested in the economy.

Two weeks before the US presidential election, the race is still open. The polls show President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, running neck and neck. That's evidence of one thing for sure: the nation is still deeply split over the direction that the country should take. But the candidates' third and last televised debate showed that, in foreign policy at least, their positions are not that far apart.

The debate, which took place in Boca Raton, Florida, showed Romney concerned above all not to look like a warmonger but like a confident national leader. He toned down his attacks on Obama and moderated his rhetoric. And he moved his position toward the center - a tactic which he used in the first debate, and which knocked Obama off his stride. Romney said he would challenge China legally over its massive violations of trade regulations, but that he also saw China as a partner. Romney said he would charge the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahamdinejad, with "genocide," but he rejected military intervention and called for tougher sanctions. That's all not that far from current US policy.

Many questions remain open

Like the earlier debates, this one did not tell us much more about policy details. The president has still not explained how it was that the requests made by the consulate in Benghazi to reinforce the security staff there were not met. Neither side can offer any ideas or initiatives which could move toward a solution of the Middle East conflict, and Romney too wants to bring the troops back home from Afghanistan by the end of the 2014, just as Obama and NATO plan to do.

The difference in foreign policy between the two lies above all in their rhetoric. Romney wants a strong America which takes over the leadership of the world and engages in nation-building, for example, in the Arab world and in Pakistan. Obama's policies are directed toward international alliances - and the nation he wants to build is the USA.

In the end, it's the economy

But the debate also made something else clear: foreign and security policy are not the issues which interest the voters, and both sides know that. In a Gallup poll in October, 37 percent of Americans said that the economy was the country's most urgent problem and 26 percent said it was unemployment, which currently stands at 7.8 percent. After those two came the budget deficit and general dissatisfaction with the government - foreign policy issues came way down the list. It was different in 2004: the Iraq war came top back then, with 23 percent. The USA is currently concentrating on itself.

So it was no surprise that Romney repeatedly moved the discussion back to domestic policy: the poor economy, high unemployment, health reform, education. This is where his real contrast with the president lies: while Romney wants to see the role of the state reduced and expects the free market to bring the country back on to its feet, Obama wants to use the resources of the state to get the country moving.

No money for foreign adventures

The nation is undecided as to which policy is better. And this indecisiveness will probably mean that neither of the two parties will have a clear mandate in Washington and that this will make it harder to solve the country's economic problems. Obama would still face a Republican-dominated House of Representatives, while Romney would probably have to deal with a Democrat majority in the Senate.

So, while Romney promises to give more money to the Pentagon and to build more ships, while he says he wants to make America stronger and lead the world, he may well have to sober up when he finds out that he hasn't got the money he needs. The new president will have his hands full reducing the record government deficit, the public debt and unemployment. Foreign policy will have to take a back seat.

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