Before the presidential debates, Mitt Romney was the political equivalent of a dead man walking. Now he could be president of the United States.
Romney stunned Barack Obama in their first encounter. The president was far more aggressive and effective the second time around, but Romney still held his own.
The third and final debate, focused on foreign policy, will be the most challenging yet, for Romney has committed himself to some deeply unpopular foreign policy positions.
Don’t be fooled by polls showing Romney gaining ground on Obama when it comes to handling international affairs. Between the first two debates, the Pew Research Center found that Obama’s foreign policy lead was down to 47 percent to 43 percent. That’s a significant turnaround from September when Romney trailed Obama on these issues by 15 points. But these numbers reflect the growing awareness that Romney isn’t the blithering incompetent pilloried by Obama attack ads as well as mounting evidence that strategically important parts of the world are, like the economy, impervious to the president’s charm.
When Romney complains, as he did in his recent address at the Virginia Military Institute, that the withdrawal from Iraq was too “abrupt,” he might as well be saying that the economic recovery has arrived too quickly. The average American doesn’t think it’s a bad thing that U.S. troops are out of Iraq. Most voters were ready for an Iraq exit five years before it finally came.
Obama counts ending the Iraq war as a campaign promise fulfilled, even though his administration tried to negotiate a status of forces agreement that would have extended the U.S. military presence. The Obama administration simply failed to get the agreement it was looking for. The Iraqis effectively kicked us out.
What would Romney have done differently that would have changed their minds?
Romney has similarly suggested that Obama is too quick to beat a retreat from Afghanistan — a primitive country where the U.S. has spent the past decade in a fruitless nation-building exercise, where the achievable military objectives were arguably accomplished years ago, and where the surge has failed to prevent local violence against American troops.
Nor will most people see much daylight between Romney’s promise to “pursue a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014” and the Obama strategy the Republican challenger calls “a politically timed retreat.”
When you throw in fresh Iran saber-rattling and a pledge to arm the Syrian rebels, one begins to wonder how many wars Romney wants at once.
By contrast, Obama will present himself as supremely judicious in the use of force, the president who has achieved the perfect balance between killing terrorists and giving peace a chance.