On the day after, at least in the movies, the stars usually feel regrets. Obama and Romney, no doubt, are experiencing them right now. Both missed some opportunities — Romney passed on the Benghazi debacle; Obama could have attacked Romney for being far more bellicose in the primaries. The audience too might feel regrets — I watched with a group of committed conservatives in the Berkeley/Oakland area (yes there are some, but there are so few that you have to be a true believer), and even among this committed group of Romney supporters and Obama critics, there were yawns erupting after about 30 minutes.
I basically agree with much of the initial views on NRO: Obama played the challenger, while Romney seemed like the incumbent; Romney succeeded in making no mistakes, while Obama’s style was again strangely aggressive; Romney’s low-risk approach forced him to agree with quite a bit of Obama’s foreign policy.
But now on the day after, we can also think more about the deeper differences between the two. For me, the most important one was strategy. Strategy is perhaps the most important area in foreign policy where presidents have the most control. It is the linking of ends and means: The United States decides on a foreign-policy goal, and then we deploy the means to achieve it. If we don’t have the means, or are unwilling to pay for them, then we must narrow the goals.
What was striking in the debate was that Obama has no clear strategic vision. His discussion of different foreign-policy challenges, it seemed to me, were rushed responses to events dictated by others. Why do we care about the Middle East? Why is it important for Iran not to get a nuclear weapon? And why are we pivoting to Asia? Why not pivot to Latin America or Europe or just somewhere that is not Iraq and Afghanistan? Obama wanted to talk more about the means — how they must be shrunk to engage in “nation-building” at home (by the way, Obama really wants to engage in state-building; the United States doesn’t need to do any more building of a nation). He wants to cut the military by many hundreds of billions of dollars, but cannot admit that this must result in a narrowing of American capabilities and goals. But simply wanting to cut the means of our foreign policy, without any clear sense of the ends, will ensure that Obama’s foreign policy continues its rushed, improvised, and episodic character.
Romney, by contrast, has more of a strategic vision, but it only revealed itself here and there. It was not just that Romney used the debate to assure voters that he was no warmonger. He used the debate to show that he sat more comfortably in the tradition of American foreign policy that has endured since the end of World War II. Romney wants the United States to play the role that it has in the world since 1945: maintaining a liberal international order, one that has spread free trade and democracy first to Europe and East Asia, and more recently to Latin America and perhaps the Middle East. This American century has produced a stunning era of stability and prosperity for more people than the world has ever known. At times Romney made clear that he wants America’s exceptional role in guaranteeing this world order to continue. And that is why military funding must be restored to its normal levels — not to wage war, but to guarantee the peace that has been so beneficial to the United States and the world.