Anyone foolish enough to watch Monday night's debate for a nuanced discussion of foreign policy, such as an exploration of whether or not America should view Islamism an unacceptable form of government for American allies the same way it viewed communism as anathema during the Cold War, was sorely disappointed. Instead, both candidates spent the debate pretending to disagree with one another about issues they have basically identical positions on and continuously trying to pivot to the domestic issues that voters actually understand and care about.
Both candidates want Assad leave power in Syria but won't commit American military forces, instead choosing to support Syrian opposition groups. Both candidates support drone strikes to kill terrorists, view a nuclear Iran as unacceptable and refused to give a firm yes or no when asked whether or not they would intervene militarily to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Both candidates claim to oppose nation building yet each view American-led economic development in the Middle East as an essential component of anti-terrorism strategy, and both believe America should make promoting gender equality a major goal of American foreign policy abroad. Since both candidates held this incoherent position, neither attacked the other about it and the moderator was likewise uncritical.
The differences between Obama and Romney were mostly rhetorical, Romney promises he'll be stronger than Obama despite pursuing the same policies, presumably through more strident rhetoric, and hopes Americans believe that bellicosity can function as a geopolitical strategy. The only real difference between the two candidates was on two issues: the size of the military, where Romney wants to spend a lot of money on a big military and Obama wants to spend a bit less on a smaller military, and on America's greatest foreign policy threat, with Obama viewing terrorists and Romney viewing Iran as the number one threat. Naturally, neither candidate was asked how this difference in priorities would impact their foreign policy -- would Romney relax sanctions on Iran if they abandoned their nuclear ambitious but reminded as strong a state sponsor of terrorism as they are now? Would Obama continue with drone strikes if they threatened to imperil the Middle Eastern anti-Iranian consensus?
These would have been good questions, the candidates would have been pressed out of their comfort zone and Americans might actually have learned something. There are very few votes to be won debating the intricacies of foreign policy, so the candidates avoided them with a zeal matched only by the politician's desire to avoid discussing Social Society, the infamous third rail of politics. Rather than debating about whether or not they would consider arming Georgia (the nation, not the state) if Russia continues to arm Venezuela, the candidates discussed whether or not they liked teachers, which unsurprisingly they both did. Instead attacking Obama for weakening missile defense in Europe, Romney criticized the President for leaving "daylight" between American and Israel, as though daylight is anything but inevitable between nation-states that each pursue their national interest. For his part, Obama criticized Romney for once investing in a company which once did business with Iran.
Although both candidates attempted to pivot to domestic issues, they never mentioned the extent to which constitutional due process will limit American anti-terrorism efforts, which is the domestic issue with the greatest affect on foreign policy. Obama could have asked Governor Romney why he opposes government intervention in the domestic economy, yet supports American government involvement to aid the economies of other nations. This meaningful critique was ignored while Obama mocked Romney with the scripted zingers such as, "the 1980s called, they want their foreign policy back." Fundamentally, each campaign understood that the American voter's willful ignorance of geopolitics means that the candidates have even more leeway than usual in spouting meaningless platitudes which often contradict the candidate's previous platitudes.
On the horse-race aspect of the debate, Obama's aggression and natural advantage as the incumbent who killed Osama bin Laden (probably the most salient foreign policy issue for the average voter) gave him the victory. It will be a hollow win though, as Romney cleared the low bar the American voters have for foreign policy. He did not forget the names of any countries, did not appear too eager to start a war and did not appear weak. The only time a foreign policy issue raised in a presidential debate has impacted an election's results was in 1976, when Gerald Ford apparently forgot that the Soviets were occupying Poland. Nothing Romney said came close to this level, and even this gaffe had only a questionable connection to the ultimate electoral outcome, although Ford went down in the polls following the debate, his poll numbers going into the debate were lower than his final percentage of the vote.
This was an utterly shallow debate, lacking even the surface level discussion of serious issues that voters enjoyed during the candidates' two previous exchanges. Voters have a right to be disappointed, but they should not be surprised. Ultimately, America was given the foreign policy debate it deserves, a meaningless one suiting a nation where the average citizen believes Iran already has nuclear weapons and America spends 27 percent of the budget on foreign aid. The central premise of modern campaigning is never to tell the electorate anything they do not wish to hear, and on foreign policy the voters wanted the candidates to keep it simple. They received exactly what they wanted.