"Welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our topic tonight is foreign policy. First question to you, Mr. President. Your critics say that you have no clear strategy, that you just react to events. Is there an Obama Doctrine? If so, what is it?"
"I killed Osama bin Laden."
"Thank you, Mr. President. Governor Romney, your turn: What's wrong with the Obama Doctrine?"
"Libya. Libya. Libya."
"Well, I guess that wraps it up for tonight. Vote early and vote often, folks."
That would be a merciful version of Monday, Oct. 22's upcoming debate on foreign policy. In fact, we should probably feel thankful that Candy Crowley, the moderator of the Oct. 16 town-hall debate earlier this week, did not, as expected, divide the questions equally between foreign and domestic policy. During the few minutes devoted to foreign affairs, both candidates postured shamelessly on getting tough on trade with China, after which Barack Obama won a round on Libya by catching Mitt Romney ("get the transcript…") in a semantic error. But that was fair, because Romney's objection to Obama's Libya policy was itself semantic: When did he say "terrorist," and what did he mean when he said it?
Of course, Monday night's debate will give the candidates a chance to air their differences on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Syria -- as well as Libya and China all over again. And some of those differences are real, rather than simply rhetorical. In recent weeks, however, the foreign-policy debate between the two candidates has narrowed down to competing banalities. This tells us something about both men: Obama has very few achievements that he thinks he can safely brag about, while Romney has so few real convictions on the subject, and is so desperately attuned to public opinion, that he's prepared to latch on to anything, and to stand just about anywhere, in order to undermine his rival.
It's hard to remember now, but before the economy cratered in the summer and fall of 2008, Obama ran a campaign focused on fundamentally reorienting America's posture in the world. He spoke of putting aside George W. Bush's "color-coded politics of fear" in order to embrace a new foreign policy based on opportunity as much as on threat. In his foreign-policy debate with John McCain, he said that America had to make children around the world look toward the United States with hope, as his Kenyan father once did. And so, as he said throughout the 2008 campaign, America would double foreign aid, ban torture, close Guantánamo, and speak a new language of mutual respect for mutual interests. Obama had perhaps the most ambitious foreign-policy agenda of any candidate since John F. Kennedy: reverse nuclear proliferation, stem climate change, repair fragile states, and restore America's standing in the world.
As president, Obama has chalked up some very real successes. He signed an arms-control treaty with Russia, forged a global coalition to isolate Iran, intervened in Libya to overthrow a hated dictator, and ended America's military entanglement in Iraq. The world would have been worse absent Obama's patient and pragmatic internationalism, just as the American economy would be in much worse shape had Obama not authorized $800 billion in stimulus spending and intervened to save the finance and auto industries. But, as Obama has discovered, "It's better than it would have been" is not an argument that has much pull at the ballot box. And right now, with Syria in flames, Libya in chaos, Iran unbowed, and the "reset" with Russia in tatters, even that argument isn't easy to make.