Foreign policy debate: Turns out Romney’s a peacenik

REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama talking during the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Fla.

Last night, Mitt Romney came out of the closet as a great admirer of President Barack Obama’s work, at least on foreign policy. Turns out, Romney agrees with and would continue the great majority of Obama’s policies, except Romney would be a bit more of a peacenik, except he would spend more on the military and never apologize.

Romney: “We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war. That’s our purpose. And the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America….

“We don’t want another Iraq,” said the only one of the two major party nominees who supported the U.S. decision to start that war. “We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.”

After congratulating Obama for killing Osama bin Laden, moderate Mitt the Peacenik added: “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” So how do we get a happier, more loving, more fulfilled planet? Pretty simple.

Romney:  “We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world reject this radical, violent extremism.”

Instant polls

The snap polls by CNNCBS and Public Policy Polling all found that most debate watchers felt Obama had “won,” but – as the experience of the past two debates has demonstrated — that doesn’t necessarily translate into a change in whom the voters plan to support on Election Day (which, as of today, is two weeks off).

In the first debate, Obama seems to have been caught off guard by Romney’s decision to repudiate many of the hard-right positions he had taken to get the Republican nomination. Romney did the same last night on foreign policy and, while Obama seemed more ready for it, it made for a tame evening of rope-a-dope.

Obama was on his NoDoz this time, but he couldn’t get Romney to fight.

James Fallows of the Atlantic wrote: “As a matter of substance, on virtually no issue did Romney make an actual criticism, of any sort, of Obama’s policy or record. Including topics where he used to disagree, like the timeline for withdrawal for Afghanistan! Instead it was, ‘I agree, but you should have done it better.’”

Less charitably, live blogging on The Daily Beast, Andrew Sullivan wrote: “Romney is endorsing Obama’s foreign policy. Simple as that. Amazing. You cannot believe it of course. You can believe nothing that comes out of that mouth.”

Even on Fox, Stephen Hayes put it thus: “In his effort not to look like George W. Bush, [Romney] ended up sounding a lot more like Barack Obama.”

The rest of the Fox crowd rallied behind their man. Charles Krauthammer declared that Romney had won the debate “tactically, strategically” and in that Romney “by going large” had succeeded in making Obama look “shockingly small.”

Political perceptions

One last thought. Partisan stereotypes play an enormous role in political perceptions. Democrats are suspected of being weak. So Obama has to talk a lot about killing bin Laden and being tough in other ways. Republicans are suspected of being perpetual hawks, always seeking a new war. The electorate is particularly war-weary, and in the previous debate Obama warned, apropos of nothing much, that Romney had said last night but playing into that stereotype, “we don’t need another war.”

It’s quite possible that Romney believed his biggest risk heading into last night was that the public would see all his previous efforts to portray Obama as a weak apologizer as suggesting that Romney would get us into another war. So he decided to come to the final debate as Gandhi.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/23/2012 - 10:28 am.

    It also turns out

    That Romney can probably see Russia from his house, too. Or at least, he’s determined that Iran’s door to the sea is Syria. That’s a HUGE boo boo if you’re going to have any sort of credibility with dealing with problems in the Middle East. It almost makes you wonder if someone in his debate prep team intentionally sabotaged him on that one. Of course, it would be a bigger boo boo if more than a thimblefull of American’s knew better–or at least bothered to look at a map after hearing that claim. But then, most American’s were probably not watching or listening to the debate. Less political boo boo, more Honey Boo Boo!

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/23/2012 - 01:12 pm.

      Foreign policy is not a huge issue for most voters. I know pundits like to play it up, but at the end of the day, domestic concerns matter more to the public at large. You can see it in congressional elections: A candidate whose foreign policy is based on eschatological theology (i.e. support Israel so the entire Jewish population will move there and bring about the Rapture) will continue to be elected if she or he pushes the right buttons on abortion or homosexuality. Governor Romney’s recitation of the mandatory talking points, while refusing to commit to anything concrete (not wanting to get involved in hypotheticals) is the best we can expect.

      It could be argued that foreign policy is overemphasized in presidential elections. After all, James Buchanan had impressive foreign policy cred, and look how well his presidency turned out.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 10:38 am.

    What he said….

    I too noticed that Romney’s plans were strikingly similar to Obama’s at the end of the day, but there was more. Romney did attack Obama and his primary criticism was a failure to bring peace and light to the middle east, and a stern whip to the Chinese.

    I think Obama missed an opportunity, Romney’s main claim was that he’d do what Obama did but do it better and faster. In adopting this position Romney betrays incredible naivete. Does Romney really believe that Obama or any president could have brought peace to the middles east, shut down Iran’s nuclear program, removed Assad, and controlled the outcome of the Arab Spring? If so, someone should tell Romney that the White House does not come equipped with a magic wand. The president cannot simply “will” the international outcomes it desires and any assumption to the contrary betrays a striking misconception about the nature of leadership.

    The other thing that struck me was the time warp. For a few minutes there I thought I was watching Reagan debate Romney. We need more ships? By the way, we the Navy has 5 more ships now than it did under G.W. Bush ( ). Romney’s economic plan is essentially the same, cut taxes wait for the magic to happen. The problem is when Reagan did it, deficits didn’t matter. Almost everyone now agrees that our government deficit is not irrelevant although there is debate about surpluses and or balanced federal budgets.

    Again, if Obama had developed a “magic” narrative he could have trapped Romney in it. Apparently not only will magic create jobs, reduce the deficit, and discipline China, it will bring peace to the middle east, control the outcome of he Arab Spring, and end Iran’s nuclear program.

    I’m obviously not a Romney fan, but I also have to say I thought he actually looked uncomfortable, and at times he was simply babbling off talking points.

  3. Submitted by David Frenkel on 10/23/2012 - 10:42 am.

    Foreign policy

    There have been plenty of surveys of Americans knowledge of the rest of the world and it isn’t pretty.
    After living in Washington, DC during both wars the top brass in the US military is very aware that the pain of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has only be felt by the US military not by the rest of the US. The world is too complex a place for short political debates and sound bites. Interesting that the fastest growing military power, China, was not discussed. It is estimated that China could be on equal military footing with the US in 10 years.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/23/2012 - 11:06 am.

      China has superior numbers. There’s no way we can ever compete with that. Which means that we can’t outspend them, and shouldn’t, simply because we’d have to wring so much more out of the American taxpayers to keep up. The answer, then, is to plan smarter. Spend less for a better outcome. China may not like it (though it’s keenly aware) that the American intellect (when it’s engaged) is much more creative. Mobilizing that creativity is what will keep us safe and sound, not carrying around a bigger bat, when the rest of the world can get their own bats. And that is a major reason that Obama wins–he understands that we can’t afford to play bigger. We need to play smarter.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 11:09 am.

      Could be

      But probably won’t.
      Historically, China has never been expansionist in a military sense.
      And I’d question whether China is the fast growing military power proportionally, as opposed to absolute measures. As the world’s most populous nation, China can make relatively small increases in the size of its military and still show large increases in absolute numbers.
      However, China’s main planned expansion is economic, not military.
      It’s main goal is controlling its immediate sphere of influence; making sure that Japan, Taiwan and SE Asia stay nervous enough not to threaten it.
      It is not a military threat to us.
      I’d recommend John Bryant Starr’s current (2011) book on China for some good background.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/23/2012 - 03:09 pm.

      I was amused by Romney’s characterization of China as wanting a “free and open” society:


      “So they want the economy to work and the world to be free and open. And so we can be a partner with China.”

      (end quote)

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 10:45 am.

    Anything you can do

    I can do better,
    I can do anything better than you.

    That seems to be what Romney’s campaign has been reduced to.
    Absolutely no new ideas.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 10:59 am.

    That 10 year estimate is whacked

    China just floated it’s first aircraft carrier- without any planes. It’s estimated that it will take them 5 years just to get that one aircraft carrier up and running with carrier based planes and trained pilots. Unless they’re going to repeat process 10 times in half the amount of time we’ll have 11 carriers and they’ll have one. Hardly military parity with the US. Nor do they have tanks comparable to the Abrams, or aircraft, and most of all, they have no combat experience beyond getting beat up the Vietnamese.

  6. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/23/2012 - 11:43 am.

    Mr. Frenkel has hit an interesting point

    How long do you think the military will be committed to fighting wars that are “painless” to most of the rest of us.

    The senior Army officers I have had the privilege of knowing had a much better grasp of equality and justice than the general public. While committed to doing their job I don’t believe that they will see the “painless” war as either equal or just in the long run. What then?

  7. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 10/23/2012 - 12:03 pm.

    The “etch-a-sketch” was shaken again last night.

    I note the lack of howls or outrage from the right resulting from Romney’s backing away from or downplaying “severely conservative” positions.

    It is my impression that the right wing has made a generalized decision that Romney can say what he thinks he needs to say in order to win the election. The result is more important than the process. The dismissal of “fact checkers” was the big clue.

    The experience with Gov. Walker should be instructive–do not disclose priorities until after an election, then ram through the mystery agenda.

    As Bob Schieffer adopted the nick-name “Mat” last night in allowing the devolvment of the debate into a rehash of domestic stump speeches, one question could have been asked that bridged the national/international topic:

    “What is you impression of the result of the “austerity” programs in Europe and how will the US react to the coming US austerity program?”

    Europe is several years into various versions self-imposed or externally imposed versions of austerity. Their economies are still in recession (contracting) and incomes and revenues are still falling.

    Our relentless of pursuit of the same austerity will be different??? Why?? American exceptionalism?

    We are in for some surprises if Romney is elected.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 10/23/2012 - 02:09 pm.

      Go along to get along

      You said “It is my impression that the right wing has made a generalized decision that Romney can say what he thinks he needs to say in order to win the election.”

      I agree completely, and this is what scares me the most if Romney wins and if the makeup of Congress remains essentially unchanged. They’ll no longer have the fear of “We can’t let this President succeed whether it hurts the country or not” standing in their way. And if we think what happened when the “bottled up” Republicans in Minnesota finally got some measure of control of the agenda was bad (“Laser focus on the economy” my foot!), Romney and a cooperative Congress could make that look like nothing.

      Nothing scarier than someone who says whatever will get him ahead in the moment. Especially if that person ends up becoming the titular head of this country.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/23/2012 - 12:05 pm.

    Republicans always make the peace claim

    But they find reasons to go war or launch military attacks. Reagan attacked Nicaragua and some little island, Bush attacked Panama and went to war in the Gulf to restore a Monarchy. Clinton did deploy strike aircraft in Bosnia but the scale and nature of that operation was very different than the others. Then of course Bush launched the Iraq war. They all claim they’re going to be about peace but war and the threat of war are a primary necessity for their fear mongering politics. So the only thing you know is that one way or another Romney will find a way to fight a war somewhere.

  9. Submitted by Lance Groth on 10/23/2012 - 12:31 pm.

    What he said

    With all of Romney’s “what he said” answers, I began to wonder why he was there. They could have let Obama speak for 45 minutes straight and called it a night.

    Obama also won the body language contest. Romney looked ill at ease and a bit nervous, like someone going in for a root canal.

    In fairness though, Romney clearly believes that he can win on the economy, and he knew he could bring nothing to the table on foreign policy, so his strategy last night was to avoid making any major blunders (the gateway to the sea thing was a blunder, but 98% of Americans would completely miss that anyway), avoid sounding dangerous, try to sound knowledgeable by throwing out a lot of place names and geopolitical actor names, and just survive so he can put it behind him and pivot back to the economy. To that extent, I guess he succeeded.

    If only last night’s Obama had shown up for the first debate, it would be a very different electoral picture today.

    One thing that stands out to me, in terms of style, is that neither man used humor in any of the debates. Just not their thing, I guess, neither for President Spock nor Gov. Mannequin. But when you think back to how a twinkle in the eye and a simple line like “there you go again” can charm viewers, I’m surprised that no one coached either one of them to look for such a moment. I do think that, for Obama, it would have worked to leaven his intensity a bit. He had the opportunity with Romney agreeing with him all the time. Superficial, yes, but this is the age of visual media, and these things count.

  10. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/23/2012 - 03:12 pm.

    china phobia ?

    I heard an Interesting report on the BBC regarding China population statistics. China will soon have more people over 65 then the entire population of the US. Where will the resources come to care for these citizens ? Will the Chinese be able to continue the growth they have shown under this population pressure ? On top of that FACTOID the population is not replenishing itself. Or at least I think that’s what I am hearing.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/23/2012 - 05:55 pm.

      China’s problems

      China is facing many problems.
      Since 1978 it has had a (loosely enforced) on-child family policy, which is partially responsible for the slow down in population growth. The population shift from rural to urban is also part of the problem. This has resulted in an older population.
      In terms of agriculture, urbanization has resulted in a loss of arable land. While it is about the same area as the United States, China has much less arable land. As a result, it is already a food importer, and will become more so in the future.
      China has always viewed its people as its resource — the hope is that they will become productive enough in the manufacturing sector to pay for the necessary importation of food and other natural resources. Their current outreach to Africa may reflect this.

  11. Submitted by Gary Stark on 10/23/2012 - 05:17 pm.


    How can you have a debate on foreign policy and completely ignore the United Nations? Priority one should be a drastic overhaul of the UN, something like this…

    We can either continue to spend trillions that we don’t have to play world cop or we can apply the principle of DEMOCRACY to our foreign policy. These guys aren’t peaceniks.


  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 10/23/2012 - 06:06 pm.

    Conservatives have no where to go and Romney is smart enough to know he owes them nothing.

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