By David Rohde
Oct 23 During last night's foreign policy debate
in the U.S. presidential election campaign, the Mitt Romney of
the Republican primaries disappeared.
Romney's April criticism of Obama's decision to commit the
United States military to helping oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya
disappeared. Missing was a promise on his website to reduce
foreign aid by $100 million. Romney's past criticism of what he
called Obama's rushed exit from Afghanistan vanished as well.
Given his lurch to the center on domestic policy, that comes
as no surprise. But it does not make Romney's record - or his
willingness to change positions - a nonissue. If Romney wins
this election, it will be arguably the latest and greatest shift
to the center in presidential campaign history.
Last night the new Romney praised Obama's toppling of
Qaddafi, said he supported the president's policy in Afghanistan
and agreed that the administration's economic sanctions on Iran
After the debate instant polls, most pundits and even a
dozen undecided voters on Fox News said Obama had won on
substance. But there was a chorus of commentary arguing that
Romney's flat performance was smart politics.
An analyst on CNN pointed out that Romney's call for a
larger Navy would play well in Virginia, home to the country's
largest naval base. The chairman of the Republican National
Committee said each minute Romney appeared on national
television and did not appear to be a heartless corporate mogul
was a victory. Other Romney supporters said Romney had succeeded
at not looking like a "warmonger" or "another George W. Bush," a
performance that might appeal to female voters.
Still, if Mitt Romney wins this election, he will do so with
a foreign policy blank slate, not a clear vision for the future.
To be fair, Romney was right in places. When asked about whether
the U.S. should "divorce" Pakistan, he counseled patience and
correctly said it was in the interests of the United States to
try to help stabilize a troubled, nuclear-armed country. And he
largely endorsed Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from
Afghanistan in 2014. Yet all those positions were far more
moderate than the ones Romney adopted in the Republican
In many ways, the final debate was a reversal of the first
one. Romney was the confident front-runner trying to project
calm and strength, while Obama was the attacker, questioning -
and at times distorting - Romney's record.
The former Massachusetts governor was bold and aggressive on
four issues. He accused Obama of not sufficiently supporting
Israel, falsely claimed that Obama engaged in an "apology tour"
in the Middle East, said the result of the Arab Spring was a
"rising tide" of "tumult" and "confusion" and vowed to declare
China a currency manipulator on "day one" of his presidency.
Taken together, these seem less like a coherent foreign policy
than a formula for Romney's electoral victory.
Of course, all politics is part theater; Obama showed that
four years ago. Presidential candidates have been judged on
debating style, not merit, for decades.
There are enormous holes in the president's foreign policy
record. He glossed over his failure to deliver on promised
assistance to post-Arab Spring countries, lack of action in
Syria, a largely failed Obama policy in Afghanistan and
Pakistan; and his overreliance on drones.
Romney attacked Obama on some of these issues, but his
passion flared where the electoral calculus called for it, such
as China's cheating or loyalty to Israel. Romney also used
exaggerated descriptions of instability in the Middle East to
pose the foreign policy version of Ronald Reagan's "are you
better off than you were four years ago" question.
It was an uninspiring final debate of an uninspiring
campaign. Obama's overconfidence cost him the first debate, and
possibly cost him the election. The two clashed tenaciously in
the second debate but avoided specifics or outlining their own
domestic agendas. And the final debate seemed more about
politics than strategy.
In the end, it is Romney's approach - not his performance -
that most troubles. After what should have been a pivotal 90
minutes, I know less about Romney's foreign policy vision than I
did beforehand. I only know his electoral calculus.