OWL’S HEAD, Maine – It was clear that Mitt Romney's strategy during the final presidential debate on foreign policy was to be moderate, temperate – "presidential" his supporters said afterwards. But what came across was a candidate who was cautious, particularly compared to his previous debates, more interested in not putting his foot in his mouth than in challenging President Obama.
Obama meanwhile was conspicuously the aggressor; he got in his now-famous – and quite effective – zinger about horses and bayonets, a fair enough response to Romney's irrelevant comparison of our naval strength now to that of nearly 100 years ago.
For Romney, It wasn't so much a debate, as it was a nicely memorized recital of information from his briefing books, a jumble of facts often only tangentially related. While he had clearly done a lot of homework, he just wasn't sure where all the information he had accumulated fit in. As a result, he confused Syria's importance to Iran: it's a conduit for Iranian weapons to Hezbullah and Hamas, not, with its 1000-mile coastline, Iran's outlet to the sea.
And with Syria exploding, Lebanon at risk, the Turkish border rumbling, Afghanistan shakier than ever, Iran's nuclear ambitions still alive, Egypt grasping fitfully after stability, Romney mentioned the North African state of Mali five different times, with no discernible context and pronouncing it in such a way that the un-initiate might have concluded that a female al-Qaeda leader had suddenly emerged to cause us new problems.
Polls of undecideds gave a strong thumbs-up to Obama. And while the president obviously had a working familiarity with the names and countries he mentioned, what really set the two apart was Obama's more assertive stance. He wasn't rude or offensive, just more confident, at ease, with what was being discussed than his hesitant opponent.
Analysts, pre-debate, all seemed to be warning that too little passion, too soft an approach would be a loser, but that an in-your-face style could risk offending the decreasing number of undecideds. Obama found the Goldilocks spot; and polls agreed. Romney, taking bad advice or just working through his experience handicap, didn't look so much presidential as uncertain.
When it came to substance, another piece of advice the Sunday talk shows had, in lock-step, glommed on to was that the candidates should take every opportunity to steer the conversation towards the economy, pushing the line that for America to flex its muscles abroad, it must have a flourishing economy at home.
And indeed Romney did take every opportunity, and created some, to tout his businessman's skills and his Olympic experience as proof he would be a better steward of our economy than Obama. Nor was Obama reluctant to veer away from foreign policy, emphasizing once again the disastrous economy he inherited, how it's now on the rebound, with the stock market near all-time highs. The result was that probably 25 percent of the foreign policy debate was a rehash of economic issues from the previous two debates.
Unless you were paying close attention – which under the circumstances was not easy to do – you might have thought the debate topic was "Israel and all the rest." While Iran drew a lot of comment, it was primarily in relation to its threat to Israel. Romney, going back to his earlier Obama and Israel-under-the-bus boilerplate, continued to paint the president as not sufficiently pro-Israel, an unsubstantiated charge that seemed unlikely to cut strongly into traditional Jewish support for the Democrats.
Bottom line? Romney continued to edge towards the center. The right wing, flag-waving, tough guy approach from the primary campaign is long gone. Will he return, or be shoved there by his neo-con advisors if he wins, is a fair question and a legitimate concern. What's clear now is that Romney has absorbed more than his briefing books recently, he's absorbed the poll numbers as well: Americans don't want new wars; they don't even want the old ones. So whereas the primary Romney denounced Obama for setting a departure date from Afghanistan, saying he would rely on advice from the generals on the ground, Monday night's Romney had bought in totally to the 2014 departure date, win, lose, or draw.
The Arab World's ongoing "tumult," as Romney termed it, was somehow Obama's fault, though with regard to specifics, there was little difference between what he would do, and would have done, and what Obama did, and is doing. The president has resisted any real involvement in Syria and Romney certainly wasn't proposing any. He preached the need for tougher actions on Iran, but beyond the pointless suggestion of seeking a war crimes indictment against Ahmadinejad, there was little in the way of policy proposals.
To combat extremism in the Islamic world, he was all in favor of more education, more democracy, and more equality for women – who isn't? – though exactly how a Romney-led America would implant these concepts in traditional Muslim society remained a mystery.
If you are an Obama supporter, you'd give him the nod in this final debate; if Romney is your man, you'd content yourself with the thought that he didn't make a fool of himself debating a topic in which his lack of expertise was clear enough.
But whomever you think won, the best news was that this was the last debate.
Mac Deford is retired after a career as a foreign service officer, an international banker, and a museum director. He lives at Owls Head, Maine and still travels frequently to the Middle East.