Everyone got it wrong. For months the Romney camp thought foreign policy could be ignored in the presidential race. The Obama team thought foreign policy was an asset. Conservative hawks thought foreign policy could be a cudgel to use against a sitting president. None of these turned out to be right.
In the end Woody Allen had it correct: Showing up is 90 percent of life. In this case, “showing up” was showing up in a way accessible and impressive for average voters who have no specific expertise in foreign policy and have gotten wary of war. In the post-traumatic stress period of the Romney campaign (October) he and his team decided, against the longing of conservative hawks, not to have a confrontation in person with the president. Differences with President Obama were minimized. Mitt Romney stressed the use of soft power. But mostly he showed himself to be reasonable and calm.
That said, the president’s broad-based slaps at Romney, accusing him of changing his position on issues fell flat, in part because Romney’s core positions (make the military threat against Iran credible, oppose sequestration, get tough on China, stop knocking Israel and be robustly in favor of a strong American presence in the world) have not changed.
Pundits are naturally inclined to accuse Romney of moderating his position. On Afghanistan, there certainly is somewhat of a muddle. But that is the case, at least in part, because Obama also has been scrambling to get back to mainstream policy positions. He hugged Israel. He said he’d gotten tough on China too. He said all options were on the table on Iran. He defended use of drones and he dropped talk of closing Gitmo (at least in the debate).
Outside the confines of the debate hall the differences are sharper. Romney is likely to take overt steps to make the military option against Iran more credible rather than talk down the military option. The candidates are far apart on military spending. Obama’s attitude toward the Jewish State is chilly, and his willingness to criticize Israel and publicly pressure it contrasts with Romney’s warm embrace. Obama chose not to emphasize his “Russian reset,” which Romney sharply condemns.
So two things are true: Both candidates tried to shade the difference, and yet there are real differences. While liberals scoff at the notion that tone and emphasis distinguish policies, it is certainly the case that an entirely different message is sent, to Iran for example, by beginning the administration with 18 months of engagement than would have been sent by robust diplomatic moves to isolate Iran, demonstrations of military preparedness, agreement with Israel on red lines and retribution for Iranian acts of terror (e.g. the attempted assassination of a Saudi diplomat).
Likewise, in broad terms Romney and Obama now want Bashar al-Assad to go and would not put U.S. troops on the ground. But it is impossible to imagine Romney would have tried to flatter and woo Assad, continued to call him a reformer, effectively given Russia a veto over action and delayed in reaching out to and helping the Syrian rebels. Real differences can produces different results. Pretending that these things don’t matter (as Obama did frequently in the debate) is know-nothingism.
And on Libya, does anyone imagine Romney would have sloughed off briefings, seized on the idea an anti-Muslim YouTube video was responsible and gone on Pakistani TV to denounce an example of free expression? Really, let’s not kid ourselves that Romney will never be part of the “blame America first” crowd and Obama, by instinct, is.
Foreign policy is about execution and perception, which is why the “apology tour” (or “confession tour,” if that makes linguistic nitpickers happy) matters. That Obama and his spinners don’t comprehend this is reason enough to seek a new direction in foreign policy. We need someone who understands and can practice statecraft in all its incarnations.