Mitt Romney has reinvented himself in the closing days of the campaign as a measured leader whose steady hand as commander in chief would rebuild America's standing in the world. But the pitch by the Republican nominee in Monday night's debate was entirely at odds with his aggressive stance on Iran, Afghanistan and other global flash points throughout the long campaign. As with his stance on domestic issues, the longer Romney talks on foreign policy, the cloudier his positions become.
Romney tried from almost the outset of the final debate to align himself with the foreign policy successes of President Barack Obama, and it is easy to see why. The administration has ended the war in Iraq, set a clear 2014 deadline to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan, killed Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida's senior leadership, isolated Iran, managed the rocky transition to democracy in the Arab world and expanded trade and human rights across the globe. There were more differences between the new moderate Mitt and the old hawkish Mitt than between the Republican nominee and the Democratic incumbent.
Romney congratulated the president for killing the architect of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, then generally praised the president's record without laying out a real alternative. Yet he summed up his worldview with the ridiculous claim that "nowhere" is America's influence greater today than it was four years ago.
Tell that to the people of Egypt and Libya, who with American assistance brought an end to decades of dictatorial rule. Tell that to al-Qaida and its terrorist affiliates across the globe whose leadership has been decimated by Obama's unprecedented use of special operations forces and aerial drones. Tell that to Iran, where economic sanctions have isolated the regime like never before and caused real hardship. Tell that to Syrians who are coming together with help of U.S. assistance to overthrow the murderous Assad dynasty. And tell that to South America, Asia and Europe, where the United States has led in promoting disaster relief, nuclear security, free trade and stabler financial markets.
So it's no wonder that Romney backed away from his tough talk of possibly extending the Afghan mission, confronting Iran, involving the United States militarily in Syria, igniting a trade war with China or dealing more aggressively with Russia. The former Massachusetts governor mostly embraced the administration's caution on the use of force in the Middle East and elsewhere, and he similarly called for a new tone of respect to improve America's reputation in the Muslim world. And both candidates competed to see who could sound like Israel's best friend without saying a word about a two-state solution or reviving peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The neoconservatives who were behind many of President George W. Bush's foreign policy mistakes and who have advised the Romney campaign are likely not whispering this newfound tolerance in his ears. That would more likely be his pollsters and campaign advisers who understand Americans are weary of war. But the change in message and tone reinforce the fundamental anxiety with a candidate who has a season for everything. That is certainly not an ideal quality in a commander in chief.