On Monday, President Obama and Mitt Romney will debate for the last time, and they will offer very different views of the world and America’s role in it. Each will seek to stamp U.S. global leadership with his respective brand—the man of pragmatism versus the man of idealism. In debating the end of war in Afghanistan, a looming confrontation with Iran, civil war in Syria, and the rise of China, the candidates will rhetorically bend the world to fit those different visions.
Obama cast himself as a pragmatist at this week’s presidential debate. “I said I’d end the war in … Iraq, and I did. I said that we’d go after al-Qaida and bin Laden. We have. I said we’d transition out of Afghanistan, and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security. That’s what I’m doing.” Romney says that “American exceptionalism” demands a different course, “organized around these bedrock principles: America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might,” he argued this month at the Virginia Military Institute. “No friend of America will question our commitment to support them … no enemy that attacks America will question our resolve to defeat them … and no one anywhere, friend or foe, will doubt America’s capability to back up our words.”
Yet after the inauguration, a messy world will blur these foreign-policy distinctions. The next commander in chief will be forced into frequent compromises between pragmatism and principle by fast-moving events that pit the art of the possible against the allure of the ideal. The inevitable result will be far more continuity in U.S. foreign policy than presidential candidates like to admit.
Consider that Romney has criticized Obama’s timetable for withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, even while pledging to honor it—just as Obama criticized George W. Bush’s war in Iraq and then adopted Bush’s strategy and timeline for ending it. As an idealistic candidate, Obama also opposed Bush’s detainee policies and “war on terror” rhetoric, but he has doubled down on the drone strikes and special-forces operations that are justified only under war powers. It’s tough to prosecute unpopular wars in a democracy, so presidents maneuver in the space they have.
In this week’s debate, Romney said that Obama watched Iran inch “four years closer to a nuclear bomb.” That charge could be leveled at presidents of both parties going back decades. Romney’s answer would be to “tighten sanctions” and make clear to Tehran that the military option remains on the table—which is indistinguishable from Obama’s policy. In fact, the United States has targeted Iran with sanctions and intermittent military threats almost since the 1979 revolution there.
Romney has also flayed Obama for “throwing Israel under the bus” and pledges there would be “no daylight” between his administration and Israel. At the same time, he promises to recommit America to a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All of his modern predecessors have found those positions incompatible. Even George W. Bush—who broke with U.S. policy by distancing himself from the peace process in his first term—ended his second term by pushing hard for a peace deal and, yes, pressuring Israel on settlements. America would accrue such strategic profit from a final agreement that this policy has trumped campaign promises.
By promising to label China a currency manipulator on his first day in office, Romney has likewise taken a well-worn page from the challenger’s playbook going back decades. Bill Clinton blasted George H.W. Bush for “coddling dictators” in Beijing and then thought better of confrontation after having to send two aircraft carriers to the Straits of Taiwan during a showdown. George W. Bush criticized Clinton’s soft touch with China and then faced a similar epiphany when the Chinese downed a U.S. spy plane and took its crew prisoner. Presidents tend to come in like lions and leave like lambs on the issue of China because it is a commander in chief’s job to avoid unnecessary conflict with other major powers—especially ones that own nuclear weapons and more than $1 trillion in U.S. debt.
Events can also bring forth idealism. Ronald Reagan’s effort to free Iran’s American hostages became, through Iran-Contra, a secret campaign to turn back communist insurgencies in Latin America. George W. Bush promised a “humble” foreign policy that eschewed nation-building but launched the two largest nation-building operations in modern history. The Arab Spring forced Obama to abandon a cautious Middle East policy and back risky revolutions in Egypt and Libya.
This tension is most profound in the decision to put troops in harm’s way. If there was idealism in Reagan’s decision to send U.S. peacekeepers to Lebanon in the early 1980s, for instance, there was surely pragmatism in his order to pull them out after 241 Marines were killed by a terrorist bomb. For the same reason, George H.W. Bush liberated Kuwait but left Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in power; Clinton bombed Belgrade from the air but refused to commit troops on the ground; George W. Bush invaded Iraq over weapons of mass destruction but not North Korea (another member of his “Axis of Evil”) when it crossed the nuclear threshold; and Obama wanted to stop a slaughter in Benghazi but not lead the NATO force to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi.
On Monday, Obama and Romney will argue that one’s pragmatism and the other’s idealism would lead to different decisions on Syria and Iran. In fact, these intellectual strains coexist in every president. They are two faces on the same coin, and the truth can’t be known until the next commander in chief sits alone in the Oval Office on a dark night of the soul, and contemplates flipping it.
This article originally appeared in print as "Two Faces of American Power."
This article appears in the October 20, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.