Reuters/The Great Debate: Why ‘peace’ was catchphrase in presidential debate

October 23, 2012

Foreign policy attempted to take center stage at the presidential debate Monday evening but failed resoundingly. For the candidates agreed to agree on a number of key issues — the timeline for ending America’s longest war, support for Israel, and the importance of diplomacy and sanctions in Iran. Nation-building at home trumped nation-building abroad, and small business won as many mentions from the nominees as the death of Osama bin Laden. It was no accident that the contenders talked about teachers more than Libya.

What both President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney made clear to a nation exhausted by one decade of two bloody wars: The era of big military interventions is over. Romney, who earlier in the campaign sounded poised to embrace a more activist foreign policy, embraced a loudly centrist worldview that eschewed saber-rattling in favor of promoting entrepreneurship and civil society.

“Peaceful” was the night’s catchphrase for Romney, who told the president, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This key word is likely to resonate with the women voters his campaign now sees as both critical to victory and open to his more centrist message.

“Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful,” Romney said in answer to a question about Egypt. “We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future, not be at war.”

Even when talking about the country where Americans still fight and die each day, it sounded as if the war in Afghanistan were already over. Neither candidate budged an inch when moderator Bob Schieffer asked what they would do if “the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security? Do we still leave?”

The answer: an unequivocal “yes.”

The president talked about Afghanistan as if it were 2015. He pivoted quickly from the “responsible” wind-down of the war to the importance of “nation-building at home” and tackling veterans’ unemployment once they return home.

In the vice presidential debate, Vice President Joe Biden tried to paint Representative Paul Ryan as hawkish-by-association on the Afghanistan war because of Romney’s statements that “conditions on the ground” would factor into his Afghanistan withdrawal timeline. Romney showed Monday that he had learned his lesson from Ryan’s experience — and stuck close to Obama’s position on the unpopular war.

“We’re going to be finished by 2014,” Romney stated, “and when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014.”

What Romney called the “tumult” in the Middle East had been a differentiator between the two candidates, with Romney advisers previously criticizing the president for not doing enough to help the opposition in Syria. But on Monday he opted for the quieter tone, and made clear he had no appetite for putting U.S. troops on the ground.

“I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “I don’t think there is a necessity to put our military in Syria at this stage. I don’t anticipate that in the future.”

Romney continued to outline his view of a muscular foreign policy with American exceptionalism at its center. In previous speeches he has argued the need for an “American century.” He talked about defense spending and the fact that he was “not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin.”

But details remained fuzzy and real differences with the president harder to discern. Both men seem to have decided that, in this most domestic-focused of elections, dwelling on foreign policy would only lose voters’ interest. Even answers to global questions arrived in local wrapping.

“I will get America working again,” Romney answered to a question about America’s leadership in the world, “and see rising take-home pay again.”

The president also regularly pushed off foreign policy questions to address domestic concerns. “You know,” Obama said, “one of the challenges over the last decade is we’ve done experiments in nation-building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, and we’ve neglected, for example, developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system. And it’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do.”

U.S. leadership will matter regardless of who wins the presidency next month. But those expecting sweeping foreign-policy doctrines or international investments will be disappointed.

This election is the first post-September 11 presidential race in which the domestic trumps the foreign. As the candidates’ answers showed Monday, even 2012’s global politics are truly local.

The era of grand interventions is at an end — at least for now. And on this, the candidates, who agree on little else, displayed a rare moment of unity Monday evening.