Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the third and final presidential debate of the 2012 campaign was the similarity between the two candidates on many basic foreign policy issues.
Both candidates agree on American exceptionalism, as exemplified by Barack Obama's insistence that "America remains the one indispensable nation." And both agreed that this hegemonic role in international affairs would be enforced militarily.
Obama bragged that despite record deficits and painful cutbacks in important domestic programs, "our military spending has gone up every single year that I've been in office."
U.S. military spending is now higher than it was at the height of the Cold War. Despite his supposed concern about the federal debt, Romney has called for dramatic increases in military spending.
Both candidates insisted not only that the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons is unacceptable but that they might forbid Iran to have a nuclear program of any kind - despite provisions in the Nonproliferation Treaty guaranteeing the right to develop nuclear energy. Neither mentioned the shared assessment of U.S. and Israeli intelligence that the Iranians have not actually begun building a nuclear weapon or even decided to build one.
Neither candidate hinted at sanctions against Israel, India or Pakistan for their nuclear programs, although they have developed actual nuclear weapons and committed ongoing violations of UN Security Council resolutions targeting their nuclear programs.
However, Obama touted the way he had helped lead an international effort to impose "the strongest sanctions against Iran in history," and he noted that these are "crippling their economy." That country's pro-democracy movement says the sanctions have actually resulted in enormous human suffering and are hurting their cause. Romney, meanwhile, complained that Obama's sanctions are not strict enough.
Despite Israel's violation of scores of UN Security Council resolutions, ongoing gross and systematic human rights violations and unprecedented intransigence in the peace process, Obama bragged during the debate that "we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history." Incredibly, Romney criticized him for not supporting the right-wing Israeli government enough!
The rise of al-Qaeda-allied extremists in northern Mali was mentioned twice, but not how the U.S.-backed war in Libya - which was supported by both candidates - directly contributed to this troubling development. Nor did either candidate mention the fact that the U.S.-backed war resulted in the proliferation of militias - now totalling over 200,000 fighters in a country of fewer than 6 million people - including the radical Islamist group that attacked the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans.
Disappointing similarities between the two candidates prevailed, but on several occasions the Republican candidate proved himself far less adept at addressing foreign policy issues - and often showed his willingness to make demonstrably false claims about Obama's record.
Romney twice criticized the president for being "silent" during the 2009 pro-democracy uprising in Iran. In reality, Obama demanded that the Iranian regime "respect the dignity of its own people and govern through consent, not coercion."
Romney also seemed rather ignorant regarding basic geography, as in his claim that Syria is important to Iran because it's "their route to the sea." Iran doesn't border Syria and has over 2,400 kilometres of coastline.
One of his particularly bizarre statements was that he believes Iranian diplomats should be treated as "pariahs" like the United States "treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa." In reality, the U. S. had full diplomatic relations with South Africa throughout the apartheid era, and the regime had a full complement of diplomats in Washington. By contrast, the U.S hasn't had diplomatic relations with Iran for 33 years.
Perhaps the most disturbing prospect of a Romney presidency in regard to foreign policy is that his team of advisers is made up overwhelmingly of neo-conservative veterans of the Bush administration.
So while there may indeed be relatively few substantive disagreements between Romney and Obama on many foreign policy issues, given the power wielded by the president of the United States, even small distinctions can mean huge differences in the lives of many millions of people around the world. This is something for U.S. citizens to keep in mind, despite understandable cynicism about Obama, in deciding how to vote in the upcoming election.
Stephen Zunes is chair of Middle East studies at the University of San Francisco.