Argument

Slippery Mitt Evades KO

Will Romney's rope-a-dope strategy on foreign policy actually work?

Mitt Romney is a candidate of protean principles. When his positions on issues become inconvenient, he simply throws them overboard, sometimes even denying he took them in the first place. So it was in Monday night's foreign policy debate, when the ferocious Rottweiler of the previous two debates unexpectedly morphed into "Me-Too Mitt."

It was a tactically shrewd performance that made a virtue of necessity. Romney clearly hasn't mastered the complexities of defense and security policy, and at several points last night seemed uncomfortably out of his depth. Rather than mount a vigorous challenge to Barack Obama's conduct of U.S. foreign policy, Romney dropped previous lines of attack and wound up agreeing with the president's handling of conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and even Iran.

By stressing continuity rather than radical change in U.S. foreign policy, Romney sought to reassure voters that he is ready to take over as commander in chief. Although post-debate insta-polls showed that he "lost" the debate, he probably achieved this crucial goal. And the appearance of a kinder, gentler Romney blunted Obama's aggressive attempts to portray him as a "reckless" throwback to the bellicose policies of George W. Bush.

All this, however, came at a cost. By softening if not abandoning earlier critiques of Obama's policies, Romney yet again came off as insincere and opportunistic, and played into Obama's repeated charge that he is "all over the map" on foreign policy. Romney's agreeableness also undercut the force of his general argument that Obama has not delivered strong U.S. global leadership. Hardcore Republican partisans -- not to mention Romney's neocon advisors -- can't be happy with their nominee's decision to blur rather than sharpen contrasts with Obama.

Last night, for example, Romney emphatically agreed with Obama's plan to bring U.S. troops home from Afghanistan by 2014. He even allowed that Obama's "surge" of more troops into the country had worked. Left unsaid was his oft-repeated accusation -- leveled as recently as his Oct. 8 foreign policy address at the Virginia Military Institute -- that Obama's commitment to a "politically timed retreat" threatens to abandon Afghans to Taliban terrorism and chaos.

Likewise, Romney abandoned, like a bad business investment, his attempt to turn the fatal attack on America's consulate in Libya into a parable of weak and deceptive presidential leadership. His erroneous claim that it had taken Obama weeks to acknowledge that Islamist terrorists were behind the assault provoked the president's most effective moment in the second debate, as well as a correction from moderator Candy Crowley that made Romney look amateurish.

Instead, Romney quite surprisingly used the Libya question to attack Obama from the left. Saying "we can't kill our way out" of our terrorism problem, the GOP nominee said the administration lacks a comprehensive anti-terror strategy that helps Muslim countries counter violent extremism within their midst. In fact, Romney had an excellent point, but he floundered in trying to articulate how a strategy of counter-radicalization might work. Instead, he kept insinuating that Obama is somehow to blame for the "tumult" in the Middle East.

While making a persuasive case that the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is in America's strategic interest, Romney was unable to identify any serious difference with Obama's response to the uprising. He was equally adamant that U.S. military forces shouldn't get involved, and that Washington should be wary about arming the wrong people -- namely Sunni Salafists -- in the Syrian resistance.

Romney probably did score a point on Iran, which he said is "four years closer to nuclear weapons" than when Obama took office. Apart from promising to indict Iran's president for incitement to genocide -- an idea hardly likely to make Tehran more tractable on nuclear enrichment or anything else -- he offered no real change in policy. Instead, he acknowledged that the "crippling sanctions" orchestrated by the administration were working, and promised vaguely to tighten them.

Romney did, of course, take a few of his usual jabs at the president, accusing him of being an inconstant friend of Israel, of having undertake an "apology tour" in the Middle East, cutting defense spending too much, and letting China get away with murder on trade. But Obama effectively parried these blows in what was a thoroughly dominating performance.

Perhaps too dominating. Obama was overly aggressive at times, cross-examining Romney on his policy shifts and lapsing into sarcasm when his opponent made a reasonable point about the size of the U.S. Navy. No doubt the president showed off his superior sophistication and grasp of complex policy issues, but probably at some cost to his likeability.

The debate was a win for the president, if a frustrating one. He landed blow after blow, but couldn't manage any knockdowns of the slippery, shape-shifting Romney.

JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

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