The commander-in-chief is assumed to have an edge in a foreign policy debate but the world has become a more complicated place, even in recent weeks, and President Obama has typically been careful not to articulate a sweeping “Obama doctrine.” His approach has been more pragmatic, evaluating America’s interests case-by-case and clearly not stepping up to any threat from any place at any time. In this, he’s been sensitive, I believe, to an ambivalent national mood—a mood, as I note below, that poses unique challenges for Romney, if not for both candidates.
Obama can, with great assuredness, tout his administration’s actions on ending the war in Iraq, the planned drawdown in Afghanistan (with which Romney reluctantly and complainingly kinda sorta agrees), the death of bin Laden, pressure on Iran’s nuclear aspirations and coordinated international isolation of that regime, trade sanctions against China, our role in the Libya coalition that overthrew Qaddafi, an arms control treaty with the Russians.
But again, the theme here is not that America will intervene in any country where we don’t like what’s going on. We’ve only begun to see what’s been unleashed by the Arab Spring. Some of it will be lethal; much will be unfamiliarly religious (um, they’re Muslim countries), some will be recognizably democratic. And we will not send in the marines every time something doesn’t go our way. We won’t even always know right off which way is “our way.”
All of which poses an interesting problem for Gov Romney. His mode of operating throughout the campaign as well as in these debates is to try to figure out where particular voters are whose support he needs and adopt positions solicitous of them. If that position contradicted an earlier stance, so be it.
But on America’s role in the world many voters show significant ambivalence (i.e., to the extent that they’re paying attention—foreign policy is pretty far down voters’ list of concerns, for better or worse). They want a strong America shaping events across the globe but they’re deeply war weary. They want a state of the art military but have legitimate budget concerns. They’re nervous about outcomes in the Middle East but are rightfully suspicious of endless occupations that lack clearly defined goals.
For example, Romney’s position on Afghanistan during the primaries—stay there until we’ve hunted down all the Taliban—has undergone the etch-a-sketch as the general election audience is a lot less supportive of such a potentially endless commitment. In fact, as often as not when foreign policy matters have surfaced in the debates so far, he’s complained bitterly about the President’s actions while quietly admitting he’d do the same.
So, if you can take another 90 minutes of these guys mixing it up with each other, I’ll see you there, as it were. Also, I’ll be on a CNBC panel after the debate.