But the debate at Centre College provided the first extensive foray into foreign policy of this debate season, and the answers delivered by the candidates closely reflect what their principals, President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have said on the same subjects with only slight differences in emphasis.
In that way, the Biden-Ryan exchanges offer clues to Obama’s future approach and Romney’s likely line of criticism heading into their Oct. 22 debate on foreign policy, the final time the two candidates will appear on the same stage before Election Day.
On one level, Biden carried the message that Obama has sought to deliver in ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq and in announcing a timeline to conclude the Afghanistan war: It is time for the United States to brings its forces home and spend the savings here.
Ryan, too, emphasized Romney’s main critique of Obama’s foreign policy: That it has reduced U.S. influence abroad, confused some traditional allies and too carefully managed antagonists such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Iran’s ruling clerics.
He also hit Biden hard on the administration’s changing story over the Sept. 11 attack on a too-lightly protected U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
It appeared to be that foreign policy question, coming right out of the gate, that Biden had the most trouble addressing, as he said that “we did not know” about the rising security concerns of the U.S. mission in Libya in real time.
At the Friday news briefing, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Biden “was speaking directly for himself and for the president,” not the State Department agencies that handled a request for more security in Libya. Carney said Biden “meant the White House” did not know of the request, not the administration more broadly.
Ryan also added a note of caution to his ticket’s foreign policy approach that has been largely absent from Romney’s speeches, which have emphasized U.S. power and the need to promote freedom around the world.
In response to moderator Martha Raddatz’s question concerning his criteria for military intervention, Ryan noted that “each situation will come up with its own set of circumstances.”
Obama’s foreign policy has also been defined by a largely ideology-free, case-by-case management of crises and opportunities that has led to what Republicans have criticized as inconsistency, citing the assertive U.S. intervention in Libya but a far more cautious handling of the bloodier conflict in Syria.