US President Barack Obama and Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney greet at the end of the third and final presidential debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
Updated: November 24, 2012 6:12AM
For more than a year, Gov. Mitt Romney’s foreign policy sales pitch has been to promise he’d be a strong leader on the world stage, very much unlike that rather passive other fellow, President Barack Obama, who consistently “leads from behind.”
At Monday’s presidential debate in Florida, another Romney finally showed up: The guy who understands that judgment matters, not bluster, that the United States simply cannot force the world to bend to its interests, and that diplomacy beats neo-conservative machinations and tough talk.
Where was this man all along? And when he gets religion so late in the game, can he be believed?
Long ago, Romney put handcuffs on his ability to influence activities in Iran by saying he would not allow Iran to enrich uranium at any level, even for purposes of nuclear energy. But on Monday, a more reasonable Romney sidestepped that position and doubled down on Obama’s policy of tough sanctions on Iran, saying he would have started them earlier and made them even tougher.
Obama, understandably, accused Romney of being “all over the map” on that issue and many others.
Romney in the past has advocated arming the “right” insurgents fighting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, so as to deter the “wrong” insurgences — Islamic extremists — from coming to power. That strategy reflects a simplistic notion of America’s ability to shape or influence internal affairs in a Syria in turmoil.
But on Monday, good judgment finally showed up. While Romney defended his plan to arm selected insurgents, he emphasized that the best way to discourage Islamic extremism in the Muslim world is to support the development of healthier countries, where young people have a future.
“We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” Romney now said, pushing an American policy that would support economic development in the Middle East, more education, gender equality and the “rule of law.”
Romney again called for formally labeling China a currency manipulator, driving down its currency to undercut American competitiveness. He forcefully, and correctly, complained of China’s rogue copyright policies and technology design theft. Unfortunately, labeling China a currency manipulator has been tried before, back in 1994, and proved ineffective. And the U.S. and China need each other, creating prosperous reciprocal markets. A trade war would be in nobody’s interest.
Asked what a President Romney would do if he got the call that Israeli bombers were headed toward Iran, he ducked the question, saying that would never happen because he’d have such a good relationship with Israel. Obama — lucky for him — never got a chance to answer that tough question.
Two weeks before the Nov. 6 election, Obama and Romney have engaged in three enlightening debates. Too bad they didn’t come sooner. Obama slept through the first, Romney won the second on points, and Obama won the third — because the other guy basically kept saying “me too.”
A couple of take-aways:
† Domestic policy matters more than foreign policy. The most spirited moment of the third debate may have been when the candidates once again squabbled over Obama’s bailout of the auto industry.
† A President Romney might look a lot like a President Obama on foreign affairs, if he believes what he said Monday — and can resist the bellicose wing of his own party.