Barack Obama’s foreign policy got a surprising double affirmation in Monday night’s debate: Not only did the president express his views forcefully, but Mitt Romney seemed to echo Obama’s major positions.
Romney backed Obama’s sanctions strategy toward Iran and said he favored military action only as a last resort; he declared Obama’s troops surge in Afghanistan a success and promised not to remain there past 2014, even if the Afghanistan is fracturing; he rejected military intervention in Syria, including a no-fly zone; and he endorsed Obama’s abrupt dismissal of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. His chief goal in the turbulent Middle East seemed to be to “help the Muslim world” and create a “peaceful planet.”
To make the role reversal complete, Obama stole many of what one might have expected would be Romney’s best lines: He was the first to express passionate support for Israel, “our true friend.” He spoke of America as the “indispensable nation.” And he had the relentlessly pugnacious, in-your-face presence of a man whose message, first to last, was: I am commander in chief.
To my eyes, Obama piled up the debating points so handily that I wondered if Romney was keeping a different kind of scorecard. The GOP candidate acted like someone whose pollsters had told him he was sitting on a lead and shouldn’t risk it by saying anything that might rile anyone. Romney meekly let Obama deliver his body blows, as if confident he was so far ahead on points that all he needed to do was finish the 90 minutes and go home.
I guess there’s one other explanation for Romney’s pacific demeanor, which is that Obama’s aggression from the opening bell did, in fact, intimidate the Republican candidate and keep him on the back foot, throughout.
This debate probably told us as much about where the country is as it did about the candidates. Romney’s consistent refusal to expresss hawkish, interventionist views about any of the hot-button issues — from Syria to Iran to Afghanistan — suggested that America really is so weary of war that even the self-advertised “no apology” candidate knew he must temper his views. The country may be divided one many issues, but it’s united in not wanting another war.
Whoever wins on Nov. 6, the debate Monday night demonstrated one abiding fact about the Obama presidency: This former anti-war liberal is most confident in his role as commander in chief. He expressed a clear and coherent foreign policy, and at times (as in his discussion of defense spending) he even sounded like a man with a strategic vision.
When pressed, Romney told the country to look at his Web site. Not a convincing debate technique, unless he knows he’s far enough ahead that the best tactic Monday night was to coast.