Mitt Romney's task in Monday night's foreign policy debate was to demonstrate that he could be a credible commander in chief, prepared to execute U.S. power with more muscle and less compromise than President Obama, but without veering into what Obama called the "wrong and reckless" policies of the last Republican in the Oval Office.
But in a combative debate that veered from whether the United States could control Mideast events to which man has a better chance of forcing Iran to surrender their nuclear program without resorting to war, Romney avoided the more bellicose tone he often struck during the Republican primaries.
While he pushed back at Obama at times, he explicitly said he would not intervene militarily in Syria, remain beyond 2014 in Afghanistan or rush into a confrontation with Iran. He ended up agreeing with the broad outlines of Obama's approach on the use of drones, and opposed a breach of relations with Pakistan, arguably America's most frustrating ally.
Romney had a narrower political task Monday: to show he was conversant in the subject matter and to reassure a war-weary public that he would not plunge the country into new conflicts.
As he did in his previous two debates with Obama, he shifted to the middle, and at times he even sounded the nation-building themes the president talked about as a candidate in 2008, and abandoned after he was elected. "We're going to have to do more than just going after leaders and killing bad guys," Romney argued several times, saying he would provide aid to build up democracies and discourage terrorism -- something he previously has rarely stressed. He frequently talked of bringing about a "peaceful planet."
Yet time and again, the president suggested that managing a world that at once craves and resents U.S. power requires a lot more than martial-sounding declarations about calling in airstrikes or threatening to turn on and off U.S. foreign aid. And he cast Romney as a man unwilling to recognize how perceptions of U.S. strength have changed: When Romney complained that the Navy had fallen to its smallest size since World War I, Obama dismissed the criticism. He noted that the capabilities of U.S. ships are far beyond what they once were and added, "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets."
Bringing the debate home
For Romney, this final debate before the election in two weeks was clearly his weakest. While he seemed familiar with a range of topics, speaking about rebellions in Mali and ticking off the insurgent groups in Pakistan, he also took every opportunity he could to turn back to economic issues at home, his campaign theme. Soon the two men were arguing about job creation at home and support for education.
Even when the conversation turned to the intersection of international affairs and economics, Obama attacked his challenger, contending not only that Romney's prescription for U.S. automakers in 2009 would have put Americans out work, but also that it would have strengthened the Chinese.
"We'd be buying cars from China instead of selling cars to China," Obama argued, before the two men engaged in a now-familiar argument over whether Romney's call for allowing General Motors to head into bankruptcy, without government investment, would have weakened Detroit.
On most of the specifics they argued about, Romney had a hard time explaining how he would act differently from Obama. He said he would not send the U.S. military into Syria, or even attempt a no-fly zone over the county. It was Obama who made the case for the use of force, saying he had made the call to hunt down Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and noting that Romney had called that "mission creep."
Romney's response was to argue that he was better suited to rein in the chaos in the Arab world, mostly by projecting U.S. strength. But he was less than specific about how he would accomplish that task. When Bob Schieffer asked him whether he would have "stuck with Mubarak," referring to former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime American ally, Romney said that "the idea of him crushing his people was not something that we could possibly support." What Obama lacked was "a better vision of the future," he said.
It was on the confrontation over the possibility of a nuclear faceoff with Iran, that the friction between these two men, and their underlying agreement on tactics, became most evident.
Sanctions vs. strength
Asked whether there was a deal to be had with Iran, Obama argued that the country was weaker than ever because he had invoked "crippling sanctions" as a result of "painstaking" work that began "the day we got into office." But Obama was elusive about what exactly Iran would have to do to convince him that it had given up any plan to build a nuclear weapons capability, simply vowing, "We're not going to let up the pressure until we have clear evidence" that the Iranians are bcking down.
Romney returned to one of his themes: that the mullahs had moved ahead with their program because "they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength." One result, he said, is that "now there are some 10,000 centrifuges spinning uranium." It was an accurate statement, but avoided any mention of the fact that the construction program was initially begun just before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, in Bush's first term. And Obama was constrained by secrecy laws from talking about his most aggressive action against Iran: his decision to expand a cyberwarfare campaign against the country.