President Barack Obama, right, and Republican presidential candidate… (Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images )
Monday's presidential debate, the third and last between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney, featured a forceful and articulate defense of Obama's foreign policy. That was no surprise. What was surprising was that it came from Romney.
That seemed to annoy the president — who was prepared to rebut his opponent's previous, more bellicose pronouncements. But the ever-shifting Republican nominee tacked even closer to the moderate middle than he did in the debate devoted to economic policy.
Once Romney intimated that he might keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan past NATO's 2014 deadline. No more. Now he agrees with Obama that it is feasible to transfer combat responsibilities to the Afghans by that point. On Iran, Romney emphasized economic sanctions rather than the threat of a military attack, effectively endorsing Obama's approach. On Syria, Romney disappointed some of his neoconservative supporters by forswearing direct U.S. military intervention or the establishment of a no-fly zone. There was no call for returning U.S. forces to Iraq, though Romney continued to accuse Obama of bungling negotiations aimed at keeping a small residual force there.
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Yes, there were nuances of difference. Obama says the U.S. won't allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, while Romney continued to describe the red line as "nuclear capability." And Romney didn't discard his more sweeping indictments of Obama's foreign policy. He dusted off his canard that the president had conducted an "apology tour" through the Middle East. To be clear: Obama has not apologized for American influence; every time Romney says otherwise, he reinforces the many reasons to distrust his honesty.
Even Romney's rhetoric was less blustery in the debate than it has been on the campaign trail. A viewer who hadn't tuned into the campaign before Monday night might have wondered what all the shouting was about. Both candidates support withdrawal from Afghanistan, a careful courtship of Syrian opposition forces, the continued targeting of suspected terrorists by drones, and the leveraging of military aid to induce Egypt and other nations where Islamists are ascendant to respect the rights of women and religious minorities. Both want to engage China in trade, but press it to play fair.
If Romney believes in a thoughtful and centrist foreign policy, which he hadn't until Monday night, it would argue for his candidacy. But if that vision is attractive — and it is — why not stick with the president who is already pursuing it?