President Barack Obama answers a question as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney listens during the third presidential debate at Lynn University, Monday, October 22, 2012, in Boca Raton, Florida.
Most of the snap polls taken after last night's foreign policy debate, the last before the November 6 election, gave the win the President Obama—if not an outright knockout then at least a TKO on points. But beyond the candidates themselves, the debate did have one clear loser: neoconservatives.
During the many years Mitt Romney has been running for president, he's taken a number of fluid positions on foreign policy. In addition to reflecting Romney's character as an eager-to-please shape-shifter, the changing positions also represent a genuine—and growing—policy tension among foreign policy factions within the GOP establishment.
Even though old school realists like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft retain some influence, and more isolationist voices like Senator Rand Paul represent a rising challenge, the neoconservatives remain the most dominant. But even though Romney had worked diligently since 2009 to build ties to the GOP's neoconservative wing, and relies heavily on a number of them as his key advisers, the foreign policy vision he articulated last night indicates that he understands that American voters (at least the ones he needs to eke out an Electoral College victory) just aren't that into the expensive, world-transformative schemes that neocons are still busy dreaming up.
Romney’s new foreign policy tack was evident on the very first question of the night, in which moderator Bob Schieffer served the issue of the September 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks to him on a plate. Romney chose not to re-boot his fumbled criticism of the Obama administration from the last debate, something his hawkish surrogates and the GOP's Fox News annex have been pushing hard for over the last week. Rather, Romney chose to draw back to a broader view of a region in chaos. His Obama-esque declaration that "We can't kill our way out of this mess," while surely appealing to voters tired of war in the Middle East, was sure to disappoint the neocons, for whom there are few problems in the world that can't be solved through the application of American ordnance.
It wouldn't be the last time Romney echoed the president last night. With regard to the prospect of U.S. military interventions, Romney insisted that "We don’t want another Iraq," even though neocons still proclaim the Iraq war a success (a commanding majority of Americans disagrees). On Iraq itself, though he criticized the failure to achieve a new status of forces agreement between the U.S. and Iraqi governments, Romney recoiled from President Obama's suggestion that he didn't support withdrawing American troops. On Syria and Afghanistan, Romney took positions 180 degree opposite what his neoconservative supporters have been advocating, assuring viewers that "I don't want to have our military involved" in the former, and agreeing with President Obama's withdrawal timetable for the latter.
One moment where Romney did let his inner neocon out to play was in his claim that President Obama's efforts to engage the Iranians in diplomatic talks were taken by Iran as a sign of weakness. "I think from the very beginning, one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and—and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be," Romney said. "I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength."
First, when one considers how Iran's hardliners profited—both domestically and in regional influence—from the Bush administration's reckless show of "strength" in the Middle East, this claim falls apart. But it also seriously misunderstands the manner in which U.S. diplomatic outreach to Iran has discombobulated an Iranian regime that much prefers to deal with an openly hostile U.S. government.
As Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar noted, President Obama "called this regime’s bluff by recognizing it. This is the worst thing you can do to your enemy, to unmask them." Exploring this dynamic in a 2010 column, David Ignatius wrote, “White House officials argue that their strategy of engagement has been a form of pressure, and the evidence supports them.”
Perhaps the most brutal moment of the night was President Obama's takedown of Romney's claim that the president had gone on an "apology tour" after taking office, a treasured conservative myth despite its pantaloons being rendered aflame by virtually every fact-checking organization in existence. True to form, the Romney campaign blasted out a new "Apology Tour" ad this morning, which notably doesn't include any footage of President Obama apologizing.
It tells us a lot about Romney’s lack of a clear foreign policy agenda that this was the moment his campaign thought most-worthy of highlighting from last night—a cheap attack based not on any substantive policy difference, but a stylistic difference founded on a complete falsehood, the idea that President Obama hasn't proclaimed or exerted American power boldly enough.
Which is why, despite Romney's momentary embrace of President Obama's policies, we should still be concerned with the role that neoconservatives would play in a Romney administration. It's important to keep in mind that, as a candidate, Governor George W. Bush made a lot of moderate, reasonable-sounding noises about foreign policy too. But when faced with a crisis on 9/11, the inexperienced president with unformed foreign policy ideas fell back on the comforting but naive idea that America's greatness could be proclaimed, and its deterrence re-established, through the massive exercise of military force. The next president will likely face a similar crisis, even if not likely on the scale of 9/11. It very much matters who has his ear.