Justin Vaïsse on Romney's "Come Home, America" moment:
The striking thing about Republican nominee Mitt Romney's position in this third presidential debate was how much he retreated from the military assertiveness he seemed to have embraced so far. Of course, he reaffirmed his support for a strong military and for increasing the defense budget. But consider this:
Romney did not call for a no-fly zone in Syria, as many hawks like Max Boot have suggested. He did not call for Congress to pre-authorize military action in Iran, as some of his neoconservative advisers like Elliott Abrams have advocated. He didn't criticize Obama for relying excessively on drone strikes instead of human operations, a choice that hampers the collection of intelligence by obliterating sources of information, as many critics of the president like Charles Krauthammer have rightly charged. He didn't qualify his endorsement of the 2014 deadline in Afghanistan by saying that he would consider the situation on the ground and ask the generals, like he had before.
Instead, Romney insisted that America's purpose "is to make sure the world is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet... I want to see peace... We don't want another Iraq. We don't want another Afghanistan." As for military action, it is "the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent."
Even taking into account his objective of avoiding attacks on his warmongering (a useless precaution, it turned out, because Obama attacked him on his changes in opinion instead), these were very revealing statements.
As for Obama, he repeated no less than four times his usual point about nation-building, which he says should now be done at home, and reminded voters countless times that he had extracted America from Iraq and was transitioning out of Afghanistan.
Taken together, these positions are the surest sign of the changing mood in America. A year ago, Romney made the strategic decision to attack Obama on his weakness, embracing a neoconservative agenda that seemed to revert to George W. Bush's adventurism. It was always a gamble because of Obama's strong credentials in national security, and because a large part of his own electorate no longer has any appetite for foreign interventions (see here and here). He now seems to have changed his strategy to adapt to this anti-interventionist mood.
Since politicians have every incentive not to get it wrong when it comes to reading public opinion, this is a powerful reminder that America is now in that part of its foreign-policy cycle where its mood is geared toward, if not isolationism, then at least introversion, not unlike when George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic candidate who died on the day before that third debate, campaigned on a clear slogan about the Vietnam war: "Come Home, America."
This doesn't mean that Washington will suddenly withdraw from its military commitments or that it won't launch foreign interventions in the next four years. But it does tell us something about America's reluctance to use force abroad in a meaningful way -- including under a President Romney.
Justin Vaïsse is director of research of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution and the co-author with Jonathan Laurence of Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France.