Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney had much to gain from Monday night’s foreign-policy debate. After four years, the country is familiar and largely comfortable with Obama’s handling of foreign affairs. The president’s principal goal was to remind voters, as early and often as possible, that he is the president who killed Osama bin Laden. Romney’s objective was even simpler: avoid any embarrassing gaffes that could halt his campaign’s momentum and raise doubts about his fitness to be commander-in-chief.
By those measures, the debate will probably be judged a success by both candidates. The encounter was largely civil, at times somnolent; it lacked much of the combative spark that characterized last week’s town-hall debate on Long Island. It unearthed few substantive strategic differences, despite Obama’s repeated—and not particularly skillful—attempts to coax them out of his opponent. The candidates seemed more interested in playing for field position than in putting points on the board.
At numerous junctures, the debate descended into the usual arguments over the economy, which I won’t attempt to revisit here. On foreign policy, Romney gave his least impressive performance on the subject where Obama was most vulnerable: Libya. Rather than attempt to pressure Obama to provide a fuller explanation for his handling of the Benghazi attack, Romney instead went on a meandering tour of modern-day jihad, citing the Islamist takeover of northern Mali twice in the first 15 minutes. Departing from his neoconservative advisers, Romney recast himself as a liberal dove, arguing that the U.S. “can’t kill our way out of this mess” and should focus instead on foreign aid and programs that promote women’s rights.
That established the tone Romney largely stuck to for the rest of the debate. While he repeated his campaign refrain about Obama’s “weakness” and failure to prevent upheaval in the Middle East, Romney clearly strove to project a moderate, conciliatory air. He openly expressed agreement with the president’s policies toward Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
On Iran, Romney tried to attack Obama twice for failing to support the Green Revolution in 2009, but his heart wasn’t in it. Toward the end of the night, Romney gave a measured and fluent answer on the importance of preserving the U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan; and he pounced when Obama labeled China as “an adversary,” by first saying, “We don’t have to be an adversary of China in any way, shape, or form,” and then bashing Beijing for “stealing our intellectual property, our patents, our designs, our technology, hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.”
Obama’s most effective moments came from counterpunches: His “horses and bayonets” comeback to Romney’s argument against military cuts was the debate’s most memorable line—and possibly the best use of humor by Obama in any presidential debate so far.
Obama answered one of Romney’s oldest tropes—his critique of Obama’s so-called 2009 apology tour—with an angry counterattack on Romney for bringing campaign donors with him on a trip to Israel this summer. He looked most presidential when he dismissed Romney’s charges that the administration has emboldened America’s enemies by saying, simply, “They can look at my track record.”
Too often, though, Obama diminished himself by trying to highlight inconsistencies between Romney’s past embrace of Bush-era bellicosity and the more mellow internationalist on display in Boca Raton. “You’re all over the map, Governor,” Obama said in frustration. My guess is that of the handful of voters still up for grabs, most cared less about whether Romney contradicted himself on the timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan than whether he would commit to sticking to it. (He did.)
If Obama’s greatest asset in this election is his foreign-policy record, Romney helped himself on Monday night by tacitly pledging not to change a thing.