I’ll let those more expert in domestic politics speculate on the final debate’s impact on the election and comment instead on what it might tell us about the future of American foreign policy. To me, the two most notable facts in that regard were Gov. Mitt Romney’s decision to embrace President Obama’s foreign policy course and President Obama’s repetition of his relatively hard line on the Iranian nuclear program. The first suggests a Romney victory might bring more continuity than change, and the second suggests an Obama victory might bring another Middle Eastern conflict.
Although foreign policy has played a minor role in the campaign so far, Governor Romney has consistently taken a hawkish line on it, trying to prevent being outflanked on the right during the Republican primaries and attacking the Obama administration from a generally neoconservative position later on. Beyond his harsh tone, however, he has offered few details about just what he would do differently about specific issues.
During the third debate, he dropped the harsh tone and continued to avoid spelling out alternative policies — even going so far as to agree explicitly with the president on Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, drone strikes and other hot topics. He reiterated his position about his refusal to accept an Iranian nuclear “capability,” as opposed to the president’s refusal to accept an Iranian nuclear weapon, but did not make a big deal out of the distinction or suggest that any significant consequences would flow from it. Anybody trying to predict a Romney foreign policy is thus left with lots of contradictory tea leaves to read, which might just be the point.
But since the final debate will stand as Governor Romney’s most extensive and authoritative discussion of foreign policy prior to the election, it may now be harder for him to tack sharply in a more belligerent direction afterward even if he wants to. His final sketch, moreover, etched for a general audience paying close attention, suggests that he recognizes a strong public desire to avoid additional or lingering foreign entanglements and confrontations. Counterinsurgency fans, for example, cannot be happy with his declarative statement about leaving Afghanistan in 2014 no matter what and his eager seconding of the president’s expanded drone war. On foreign policy, at least, a Romney administration might represent as much continuity with President Obama’s first term as the latter did with George W. Bush’s second.
The president, meanwhile, made a point of forcefully repeating his promise that he would not let Iran get a nuclear weapon on his watch. He has said this before, but some have assumed he did not really mean it, and that if a final decision point ever arose, his administration would ultimately forego war and instead accept Iranian weaponization, retreating to a policy of deterrence and containment. (After all, this was what his predecessor did when North Korea went nuclear a decade ago.) Just as Governor Romney could always tack back towards a more interventionist stance after a victory, so President Obama could walk away from his no-Iranian-nukes promise later on. But such a stark, public reiteration of his position suggests that he might follow through if required to, which would mean that unless sanctions, diplomacy and covert action can forestall or reverse Iran’s nuclear ambitions, an Obama second term could well see military action against Iran.
Gideon Rose is the editor of Foreign Affairs at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former National Security Council official under the Clinton administration. CFR President Richard Haass, who will appear on Tuesday’s NewsHour, offers his take on the debate as well.