OPINION: Breaking down the foreign policy presidential debate between Obama and Romney

President Barack Obama has a problem with foreign policy that's much the same as his problem with economic policy -- the state of things.

The economy is in the worst recovery since World War II, the world is likewise a scary mess, and so maybe it wasn't surprising in a debate on foreign issues Monday night that Obama sought refuge in pettiness.

If the topic was something big and large, such as an agenda for peace, the president would snarl at Mitt Romney about something like how this Republican challenger didn't really want to save the American auto industry. Romney would try to correct him, Obama would interrupt, the debate would dissolve into accusations of untruthfulness, and Obama could then breathe easy. After all, can you imagine him answering Romney's remark about Russia walking away from a nuclear disarmament program?

It's true, you know. The Russian government said just this month that it was going to end a 20-year deal under which the United States has been disposing of its nuclear bombs. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has made it repeatedly clear that he longs for a return to the good, old Soviet days, went a step further by later directing a major military exercise in which unarmed missiles were launched.

Maybe Putin suspects growing U.S. weakness, and maybe he suspects it because of a couple of other matters Romney mentioned. One was a tour in which Obama went around parts of the world mentioning U.S. faults, apparently as a means of endearing us to others. Another was Obama telling Poland we would not install a missile defense system there to guard against Iranian or other attacks on Europe. Russia didn't like that proposed system, and the administration said OK, figuring Russia would then be more cooperative with us in the future. What we have gotten ourselves is a Stalin wannabe.

Romney pointed to other ways the world was out of whack these days, such as the seeming rise of jihadist activity, turmoil throughout the Middle East and Iran venturing ever nearer to attainment of nuclear weaponry. He suggested policies that could have worked better, but he did not propose anything more warlike than anything Obama himself stands for, despite leftist jitters that he's anxious to start something somewhere.

Obama was able to say some things are better now than they were when he took office. We are out of Iraq, for instance. He did not say that he pretty much followed the plan of George W. Bush in getting us out and he seemed to have forgotten that he did want to leave some forces there to help the Iraqis, even though the Iraqis wouldn't go along. Our presence could have made it less likely we would lose everything we fought for someday.

Both candidates were right that a strong economy is an important part of our national security, and Obama's problem is a simple one: His policies have been tested and failed. He thought, however, that he had Romney in a tough spot when he said the challenger did not want any government guarantees for the auto industry when it was suffering badly. In fact, Romney had written a New York Times opinion piece in November 2008 saying at the end that the "federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk."

Maybe, some researchers have said, that approach would not have worked, but it is not absolutely clear yet that the Obama-engineered bankruptcy and bailout will work, either. In an online Forbes magazine article, Louis Woodhill writes that General Motors is losing market share and could face bankruptcy again. It may well be that a leaner, meaner GM envisioned by Romney would be doing a lot better right now.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. Email SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)

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