As expected, the foreign-policy debate centered on the Middle East, a region where the United States has no well-defined national interest. As a result, the debate was both confused and confusing. Mitt Romney's contribution was utterly incoherent as he veered away from the bellicose rhetoric that had characterized his campaign. Instead he implicitly repudiated the policies of the Bush administration, saying, "We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us." The fact that such a statement, which would have been branded as treasonous by many Republicans five years ago, has received almost no criticism from the GOP side is an indication that no one on the political Right has any clear idea about the correct direction for U.S. policy in the region, beyond the necessity of unquestioning support for the current Israeli government. Apart from that, Romney is keen to assert American power but has no clear ideas about what kind of power is needed (Obama's zinger about "horses and bayonets" was cruelly effective here) or to what ends it should be used.
Obama performed rather better, and he has the benefit of a clear agenda in at least one respect. Obama has shown himself willing to use all and any means to hunt down and kill actual or suspected terrorists, without too much regard for legal niceties or for the long-term consequences of policies like drone warfare. In other respects, though, his policy has been one of improvising in response to unforeseen circumstances. The administration has supported democracy in Libya and (more reluctantly) in Egypt, backed autocrats in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and stood on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict. If there is a long-term vision here, it is hard to discern, and the debate did nothing to bring it out.
John Quiggin is a professor of economics at the University of Queensland, Australia and adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is author of Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us (Princeton University Press, 2010).