WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At times, it was as if Mitt Romney had come to praise Barack Obama’s foreign policy rather than to bury it.
Monday night’s foreign policy debate between the Republican presidential nominee and the Democratic president was striking for the frequency with which Romney aligned himself with Obama’s strategies rather than distancing himself from them.
On topics from withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by 2014 to avoiding a U.S. military entanglement in Syria, Romney echoed Obama in what analysts saw as a conscious effort to appear a moderate who would not drag the United States into another war.
“His objective here was not to differentiate himself from the president but to present himself as a plausible commander in chief,” said Martin Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington.
“I‘m not sure it succeeded, but it was a very interesting approach on his part to try to consolidate his image as a peacemaker, not a warmonger,” he added. “I suspect that the reason is that their polling shows the same sentiment on foreign policy issues: that the American people are tired of wars ... and they won’t support a candidate that wants to start another one.”
Romney lobbed some grenades at Obama, accusing him of presiding over a decline of U.S. influence, of failing to bring Israelis and Palestinians into peace talks, of doing too little to support Iranian protesters in 2009 or to stop Syria’s bloodshed.
But he also tossed the president some bouquets.
On Afghanistan, where Romney has at times accused Obama of “a politically timed retreat,” he lauded the president’s “surge” of forces into the country.
“The surge has been successful and the training program is proceeding apace,” he said, saying there were 350,000 Afghan forces “ready to step in to provide security and we’re going to be able to make that transition by the end of 2014.”
Asked about his stance on drones, Romney solidly backed Obama’s extensive use of the unmanned aircraft for surveillance and targeted killings without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.
“I support that entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology,” Romney said, although he added that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess” and that Obama should have done more to combat “Islamic extremism.”
On Iran, where Romney has at times stressed the threat of military strikes to discourage Tehran from seeking nuclear arms, he instead praised sanctions imposed by Obama, put the accent on a negotiated solution and called force a last resort.
“It is also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means,” Romney said.
“It’s absolutely the right thing to do, to have crippling sanctions. I would have put them in place earlier. But it’s good that we have them,” he said. “They do work. You’re seeing it right now in the economy.”
Iran denies it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, saying its atomic program is for peaceful purposes such as generating electricity as well as isotopes for medical uses.
One of the few places where Romney offered new policy details was in how he would tighten U.S. sanctions on Iran.
Romney proposed barring ships that carry Iranian oil from U.S. ports and indicting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide for “genocide incitation.”
Visiting New York last month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad said the Jewish state had no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated.”
‘VERY LITTLE PRODUCT DIFFERENTIATION’
Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Romney did little to advance a foreign policy vision for his Republican Party.
“The question, it seems to me, that continues to loom out there is that the Republican Party remains divided between realists and neo-conservatives and neo-isolationists and we still have no clear idea how a Romney administration would reorient the party and try to consolidate those views,” he said.
Ken Lieberthal, a China expert who served on President Bill Clinton’s national security staff, said Romney may have tempered his positions, calculating that with a domestic-focused election, he would not suffer from echoing Obama’s foreign policy.
“He was willing to risk very little product differentiation in order to sound statesmanlike, mature, and quite reasonable and moderate,” Lieberthal said. “This debate had Romney sounding much more like Obama than he ever has before.”
“But I interpret that as meaning that he feels that this election is really going to be decided on the domestic side and therefore he simply doesn’t want to look bad on foreign policy,” he added. “He carped a lot and they traded barbs back and forth but when you look at the fundamentals, it was hard to see how Romney differed from Obama’s foreign policy.”
Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney