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Debate coverage: Public opinion, budget woes drive Romney ‘switcheroo’ on foreign policy

The return of the man former President Bill Clinton nicknamed “old moderate Mitt” to this week’s foreign policy debate reflects the climate of public opinion and the realities of a $16 trillion debt load as much as it demonstrates Mitt Romney’s presidential ambitions.

“He pulled a switcheroo [Monday] night,” said Farah Stockman, Boston Globe foreign policy columnist, member of the editorial board and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, which describes itself as a nonpartisan think tank. “Mitt Romney had a lot of sharp differences with President Obama, making fun of him for wanting to negotiate with Iran.

“He tacked toward the center because that is where the American people are,” Stockman added.  “The American people are tired of war.”

During the foreign policy debate, Obama directly addressed that theme:  “[W]hat I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation-building here at home. And what we can now do is free up some resources to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, making sure that … our veterans are getting the care that they need.”

Obama’s first-term foreign policy has reflected the reality of war-weariness and war-inflated debt, Stockman said.  He is willing to intervene to address a threat, she said, adding that it has to be “quick, cheap and low-risk.” The Libyan military intervention fit those criteria

As Obama said of Romney in the debate, the former Massachusetts governor has been “all over the map” on foreign policy during his two presidential campaigns. But in the 2012 Republican primary season, he emphasized his disagreement with Obama, saying in North Carolina last May, “[H]is foreign policies … I think by and large have failed.”

Speaking via satellite to the Faith and Freedom Coalition in June, Romney said, with respect to the president’s policies toward the Middle East and Israel, “[Y]ou could just look at the things the president’s done and do the opposite” on Israel, on Syria and on Iran.

In the debate, however, Romney came off as far more interested in economic growth than he was in pursuing a foreign policy much different from Obama’s. Asked to opine on America’s “role in the world,” Romney quickly shifted to his five-point economic recovery plan, explaining: “[I]n order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead.  And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home. You can’t have 23 million people struggling to get a job. … We have to get our economy going.”

He also spoke in support of the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya last year and its policies on Syria now. While criticizing the president for allowing the Iranians to get “four years closer” to building a nuclear weapon, Romney didn’t propose any policy or program to stop them, beyond the tough sanctions now in place.

Romney’s emphasis on showing where he agreed with Obama allowed him to highlight his biggest differences with him – on economic policy, which conventional wisdom dictates is the voters’ top priority in a time of high unemployment and slow growth.  Romney’s best moments in the first two debates focused on the economy. He seized every opportunity to repeat past glories in the third.

On foreign policy, Romney is forced to recognize that a majority of voters support the president. Obama’s foreign policy approval rating has mostly been above 50 percent, according to the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, ranging from a high of 57 percent as recently as May 2011 to a low of 48 percent in November 2010.

The current approval rating for Obama’s foreign policy is 49 percent, a five-point drop that took place after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the administration’s confused public response to it.

David Sanger, a New York Times reporter and author of “Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power,” explained the two major elements of what he (and not Obama) calls the “Obama Doctrine,” at a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International (CSIS) Studies in Washington last June: “First, President Obama is clearly willing to go use unilateral force when he believes there is a direct threat to the United States,” such as the raid to kill Osama Bin Laden, the use of drones over Pakistan and the “kill lists” of suspected terrorists for whom Obama authorizes assassinations.

“What those have in common is that they’re all light-footprint kind of examples,” Sanger said. “In other words, the president sort of decided that the era of sending a hundred thousand troops or spending a trillion dollars over 10 years to try to change societies that may or may not be willing to change and that certainly resent our presence – that day is over.”

In that first element of the Obama doctrine, The Boston Globe’s Stockman sees other new tools at work, such as using cyber warfare to impede Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and “using the financial system to shut down a country” in the Iran sanctions.

The second element of the Obama doctrine, according to Sanger, goes into effect “when the threat is sort of a general concern – Syria, Libya – … his main objective is to make sure that other countries that may have … equal or greater direct threat put some skin in the game; that the United States not always act as the policeman of the world; and that we wouldn’t act until others also go in. And that was the whole message of Libya.”

This lighter, cheaper approach is popular in the wake of the expensive Iraq war and the lingering Afghanistan war, both of which started with public approval, but lost it as the fighting dragged on, setbacks occurred, deaths and costs mounted, and political opposition organized around the accumulating negatives.

Because those wars were started under a Republican president, a crucial Romney debate goal was to distinguish himself from Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. To make sure no one confused him with Bush, Romney was willing to blend into agreement with the Obama doctrine.

While the tactics and technology supporting the Obama doctrine are modern, the spirit behind their deployment is old, with many echoes in America’s past.

In the 1920 election, the winning candidate, U.S. Sen. Warren G. Harding, R-Ohio, promised a “return to normalcy,” after the slaughter of World War I, explaining in a campaign speech in May of that year: “There isn’t anything the matter with world civilization, except that humanity is viewing it through a vision impaired in a cataclysmal war. Poise has been disturbed, and nerves have been racked, and fever has rendered men irrational; sometimes there have been draughts upon the dangerous cup of barbarity, and men have wandered far from safe paths, but the human procession still marches in the right direction.”

The oddity for Obama is to be a president who planned to leave his mark on the White House as an agent of hope and change, but who is now valued by voters more for his ability to keep problems under the radar.