Center for Strategic Communication

In his final debate with President Obama, right, former Gov. Mitt Romney sounded reluctant to use military force. Photo: Ackerman

He doesn’t want military intervention in Syria. War with Iran has to be an absolute last resort. The surest way to stability in the Mideast comes through economic development. The Afghans are on track to take over the Afghanistan war in 2014, paving the way for a U.S. troop withdrawal. The U.S. can’t “kill our way out of this mess” in the Middle East. America possesses “the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace.”

No, it wasn’t President Obama who said, “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan.” Mitt Romney showed up to Monday night’s foreign policy debate as a dove.

Before the debate, Danger Room opined that Romney’s main task was to draw clear distinctions with Obama while not seeming like he’ll start another war. He definitely succeeded on the latter point.

Surprisingly, Romney explicitly stepped away from his bellicose rhetoric on Iran and Syria, two of his main lines of foreign-policy attack against Obama. On Iran, Romney pledged to “tighten” sanctions on Iran and called military action a “last resort” to “only, only consider if all the other avenues were tried to their full extent.” On Syria, Romney reiterated his pledge to arm the rebels — but not with American weapons, and he ruled out using the U.S. military to topple dictator Bashar Assad. On Afghanistan, Romney didn’t even entertain the possibility of leaving troops in the country after 2014. He’s not a total dove — he endorsed the drone strikes against al-Qaida — but Obama sounded more belligerent in the debate than Romney did.

The cost of all this was to blunt distinctions with Obama. By my count, Romney said he agreed with Obama on five issues: drone strikes; Afghanistan; calling for the ouster of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak; killing Osama bin Laden; and placing economic sanctions on Iran. Romney conspicuously avoided attacking Obama’s handling of last month’s assault on the U.S. conflict in Benghazi, Libya. In previous speeches, Romney has criticized Obama’s foreign policy more than he’s actually explained what he’d do differently; on Monday night, voters were treated to the curious sight of Romney explicitly endorsing several aspects of Obama’s agenda.

Obama didn’t have a good debate. He ducked several questions — what to do if Afghanistan looks like a shambles in 2014; what to do about the shambles in Syria right now — and preferred to attack Romney. Sometimes he actually mocked his challenger. When Romney reiterated a talking point that the Navy is smaller now than in 1917 (a spurious comparison that ignores the vastly more capable fleet of 2012) Obama shot back that the military has “fewer horses and bayonets, too. We also have these things called aircraft carriers; they land planes on them.” Obama sounded disinterested in discussing his agenda — outside of killing Osama bin Laden, which he reminded everyone about — and dismissing Romney’s.

Romney had some stumbles, such as when he described Syria as Iran’s “path to the sea,” even though Iran has tons of coastline in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea. But for all of his lack of distinctions from Obama, he called back to an era of Republican stewardship in foreign policy, from Eisenhower to Nixon to George H.W. Bush, that emphasized sturdy, understated global leadership; a distaste for military adventurism; and, above all, competence. Nowhere was that clearer than when Romney conceded that the U.S. has no choice but to work with its frenemy in Pakistan despite how distasteful it might be, since Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal precludes American disengagement.

Many on the left spent the Bush era wondering what happened to that tradition. The Mitt Romney who showed up to the final presidential debate sounded like he’d bring it back.