The question of what the United States should do about Syria is an important one: the conflict there has killed tens of thousands of civilians, created hundreds of thousands of refugees, sparked low-level fire exchanges with neighboring Turkey, may be spreading into Lebanon, and has the potential to drastically alter the Middle East. But that question is also extremely difficult, which may help explain why neither President Obama nor Mitt Romney was able to draw much of a contrast during Monday night’s foreign policy debate.
Just how similar were the two candidates’ statements on Syria? Here are some of their comments side-by-side to give you a sense. The remarkable overlap, sometimes word-for-word, is a reminder of both Syria’s urgency and its difficulty. Tellingly, Romney strained to portray the crisis there as a failure by the Obama administration, but seemed unable to articulate a different approach.
Watch the highlights of the debate on Syria.
I. Arm rebels, but not extremists
OBAMA: We are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition. But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.
ROMNEY: And so the right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources, to identify responsible parties within Syria, organize them, bring them together in a form of — if not government, a form of council that can take the lead in Syria. And then make sure they have the arms necessary to defend themselves. We do need to make sure that they don’t have arms that get into the — the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.
II. Work with U.S. allies, especially Israel and Turkey
OBAMA: Everything we’re doing, we’re doing in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria; coordinating with Turkey and other countries in the region that have a great interest in this
ROMNEY: We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with — with Israel. But the Saudi’s and the Qatari, and — and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They’re willing to work with us.
III. Make Syria a ‘friend’
OBAMA: We are playing the leadership role. We organized the Friends of Syria. We are mobilizing humanitarian support, and support for the opposition. And we are making sure that those we help are those who will be friends of ours in the long term and friends of our allies in the region over the long term.
ROMNEY: But I believe — we want to make sure that we have the relationships of friendship with the people that take his place, steps that in the years to come we see Syria as a friend, and Syria as a responsible party in the Middle East. This is a critical opportunity for America.
IV. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s fall is inevitable
OBAMA: And I am confident that Assad’s days are numbered.
ROMNEY: I believe that Assad must go. I believe he will go.
V. My policy: organize and arm non-extremist rebels
OBAMA: But we did so in a careful, thoughtful way, making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with.
ROMNEY: We should have taken a leading role, not militarily, but a leading role organizationally, governmentally to bring together the parties; to find responsible parties.
To be fair, the candidates did hint at one potential policy difference, and it was a bit of role-reversal given their respective parties. Romney affirmatively declared at several points that he would not intervene military. “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. I don’t anticipate that in the future,” he said.
While Obama did not mention military intervention, has not appeared to support it in the past, and even criticized Romney in the debate for past proposals to supply the rebels with “heavy weapons,” he did choose to pause during their exchange on Syria and draw a contrast with his challenger on the 2011 Libya intervention. “But going back to Libya — because this is an example of how we make choices,” Obama said. “When we went in to Libya, and we were able to immediately stop the massacre there, because of the unique circumstances and the coalition that we had helped to organize. We also had to make sure that Moammar Gaddafi didn’t stay there.”
It would be a strain to interpret Obama as suggesting the United States would support a similar intervention in Syria, where conditions are quite different. More likely Obama was endeavoring to make a point about “leadership.” But it’s a sign of how close the candidates are on the Syrian question that this is the one significant contrast they could draw.