President Obama and Mitt Romney entered the arena on Monday night for the rubber match, two fighters ready to rumble in what was billed as an epic clash in world views.
Defending champion Obama brought a steady and pragmatic foreign-policy record that has won him plaudits with the public. As the bold challenger Romney had displayed a stinging jab to the administration’s vulnerable Libya position, a punishing hook on the issue of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and a devastating roundhouse on his opponent’s soft chin in dealing with the likes of Pakistan, Syria, and Russia.
But instead of an epic clash, the public witnessed 15 rounds of rope-a-dope, resurrecting Muhammad Ali's clinch-at-all-cost strategy in 1974 against the harder-hitting George Foreman.
As in, “I congratulate [Obama] on taking out Osama bin Laden and going after the leadership in al-Qaida. But we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” said Romney in an early clinch. He likewise held close to the Obama position on Syria. “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria. I don’t think there’s a necessity.”
On Egypt, Romney grabbed again, feeling “the same as the president did, which is these freedom voices in the streets of Egypt were the people who were speaking to our principles.”
On Iran, he also held close, wanting to “underscore the same point the president made … it’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions.”
Offered a chance to take a clean shot on sour relations with Pakistan, Romney clinched again. “I don’t blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is stained. We had to go into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden.”
In breaking out of that cloying clinch on the ropes, Obama almost certainly outscored his opponent on points. The question is whether his shots did any real damage.
“I’m pleased that you are now endorsing our policy of applying diplomatic pressure [on Iran] to end their nuclear program, but just a few years ago, you said that’s something you’d never do,” Obama counterpunched. “In the same way that you initially opposed a timetable for Afghanistan; now you’re for it, although it depends. In the same way that you say you would have ended the war in Iraq, but recently gave a speech saying that we should have 20,000 more folks there. The same way that you said that it was mission creep to go after [Libyan dictator Muammar el-] Qaddafi.”
Romney’s rope-a-dope strategy almost certainly disappointed partisans and foreign-policy experts who were hoping for a defining debate between two men with decidedly different foreign-policy instincts. For much of the past year, Romney has been a full-throated champion of “American exceptionalism,” advancing the idea that the United States has a unique calling to stand beside all those people around the world who are fighting for freedom and liberty against the forces of tyranny. From that vantage point, he has attacked Obama consistently from the right, criticizing the administration’s haste in withdrawing troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and its softness in dealing with dictators and autocrats in Damascus, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing. That feisty Romney was missing in last night’s debate.
In shaping his foreign-policy positions, Romney has often tried to assume Ronald Reagan’s mantle of “peace through strength,” right down to the increases in defense spending and the signature growth in the size of the Navy. Perhaps he also drew a page from the Gipper’s debate playbook, which attempted to counter charges of extremism with Reagan’s affable demeanor and gentle admonition to then-President Jimmy Carter in 1980 of “there you go again.”
The question is whether the image Romney has solidified in the minds of the few remaining undecided voters is the moderate of last night’s debate, or the flip-flopper that has long shadowed his campaign.
“Clearly, Governor Romney made the decision to appear presidential last night first and foremost, and to assure the public that no one should be afraid of a Romney presidency,” said Danielle Pletka, vice president of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “That might disappoint a lot of experts who wanted a really serious debate on foreign policy, but these guys are not auditioning to run the world. This is about politics and trying to get elected, and at the end of the day the question that matters is whether the audience was persuaded to vote for them.”