Call it the foreign-policy debate that wasn’t.
In the third and final presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer’s questions focused on international affairs, but the candidates steered a large portion of the discussion toward domestic issues, such as jobs, education, and taxes. At a number of points, it felt like we weren’t hearing anything about foreign policy at all. And when we did, it wasn’t much of a debate: Romney agreed implicitly or explicitly with Obama on a number of national security issues, including Syria, Iran, the ouster of President Mubarak in Egypt, Pakistan, and drone strikes.
Indeed, if you’ve been following Romney’s foreign policy positions over the course of 2012, you might not have recognized the contender on stage Monday evening. Romney backed away from his previously hawkish, neoconservative positions, putting forward a relatively more hands-off view of America in the world. He defended withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, economic development and education in the Middle East, and disavowed the idea of military action in Syria.
President Obama, for his part, seemed to have come prepared to attack a more hawkish opponent – early on, he blasted Romney for taking a rigidly conservative stance on Russia, the New START treaty and other issues, saying, “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” But when it became clear that the neoconservative he came to debate was absent without leave, Obama did the next best thing: he called Romney out for the flip-flop:
“You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.”
For some, Obama might have come across as overly critical (as Romney himself put it, “attacking me is not an agenda”). But the idea that Romney is a flip-flopper with no firm beliefs does resonate with voters, so it’s tough to say who came out on top in that regard.
In fact, it’s difficult to say who came out on top at all, because so often, the candidates seemed to be rushing to agree with one another. On Iran, Obama and Romney reaffirmed their willingness to take military action in the last resort, but there seemed to be a clear effort on both sides to keep the discussion focused on sanctions and other alternatives to war. And on Afghanistan, there was virtually no disagreement from Romney that we should withdraw by 2014, which stands in contrast to the vice-presidential debate, in which Paul Ryan strongly suggested that a Romney White House might continue combat operations beyond 2014.
Finally, on Syria, there was broad agreement that we need to avoid military intervention. Obama exhibited what I thought was real candor on Syria, given that he’s been blasted by both the left and right as indifferent to the massacre happening there. But during the debate, he was straight with the American people: “[W]hat we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking,” he admitted. Then, though, he went on to concede the limits of American influence:
“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.”
A candidate on the presidential campaign trail, admitting that America can’t always make things better in troubled nations? That’s refreshing. And it was even more bracing to see the Republican candidate agree:“We don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.” To the extent that we can use Syria to gauge the enthusiasm for interventionism, the exchange suggested that there’s some level of bipartisan agreement that America is done getting militarily involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.
But the old, hawkish Romney wasn’t going to go away without a fight.
(more after the jump)
There were two main areas where the Governor was unable to fully abandon his previous neoconservative policies. The first was Iran: even though Romney largely endorsed the Obama approach, he doubled down on the idea that he won’t accept a nuclear-capable Iran. Romney continues to use this as a way to differentiate his Iran policy from Obama’s, but surely does not realize the implication of his words: a nuclear-capable Iran will exist long before a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, Iran is arguably there already: it has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, even if it hasn’t built one yet. There are actually many countries today that are nuclear-capable, including Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Sweden, Brazil, and Argentina, which would presumably all fail by Romney’s standard.
This means that, for all of Romney’s new talk about sanctions on Iran and treating military strikes as a last resort, he is much more likely to resort to force to accomplish a goal – halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program – that appears unattainable, at least through the use of military strikes.
The second place where we saw the old Romney was on the federal budget. Romney’s defense budget, which pegs defense spending at 4% of Gross Domestic Product, is clearly meant to support a more militarily-oriented foreign policy. The cost of this additional spending is estimated to be $2 trillion over the next decade.
Yet while Romney was content to walk away from his previous interventionist incarnation, he stuck to his budget plan, insisting that he would not cut military spending. Obama made the point that Romney wouldn’t be able to do this while also balancing the budget, but Romney countered by saying that he would be able to do both if he cut Obamacare and discretionary domestic spending.
So who won? Most post-debate surveys have suggested that Obama won on points, if not by a huge margin. Romney supporters counter that their candidate held his ground and showed that he can handle the position of commander-in-chief.
If you ask me, the real winner in this debate was pragmatism and prudence. Both candidates are under different kinds of pressure to support interventionist policies – Obama has come under fire for not doing more in Syria, right-wing Republicans want Romney to stay the course in Afghanistan, and both men have been encouraged to sound the drums of war in Iran. But with some important exceptions, I detected a consensus last night that war is not the answer, to quote the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Obama made this point most clearly on Syria, but one got the same sense on Iran. On Afghanistan, the candidates agreed that combat operations must end in 2014, and that this date does not “depend” on what happens in the meantime.
And if that was the candidates’ main message, I think that means the American public, which is strongly opposed to more war, was the real winner of the final debate.