By Debra J. Saunders
President Barack Obama won the final presidential debate because it was on foreign policy, and the president’s foreign policy — unlike his domestic spending — is popular with the American people.
Mitt Romney didn’t win the debate, but he did undercut Team Obama. Obamaland spent the day hitting Romney for being too warlike, too much like George W. Bush. Operatives warned of Romney’s “bluster.”
Romney changed the game as he talked up peace and said he wanted to be a partner with China. He graciously congratulated Obama for killing Osama bin Laden and then added, “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” He did everything but slip a flower into Obama’s gun barrel.
Team Romney clearly understands that a Republican cannot over-criticize Obama the way Democrats whacked Republicans in 2008 when Obama argued that Guantanamo was a top recruitment tool for al-Qaida and that the Iraq War was an unworthy “war of choice.”
Only the left can — and only the left should — hit Obama for his overuse of drones; they have become a top recruitment tool for Islamic extremists. Ditto Libya as a “war of choice.”
Romney also seems to understand that as a Republican, he shouldn’t hang all the world’s problems on the White House as Democrats did in 2008. Hence, Romney frequently acknowledged what Obama has done right in the world.
Sadly, the Benghazi attack that left four Americans dead has proved that terrorist organizations do not respect Washington — nor do they fear this president. Is it Obama’s fault? I don’t think so. Foreign policy is an oxymoron. When U.S. presidents deal with countries such as Libya, Syria and Iran, whatever they do is a roll of the dice.
I credit the president for consistency in opposing the war in Iraq and (if not according to plan, nonetheless) marshaling U.S. troops out of that war. Obama, however, did not stick to his guns (pun intended) when he undermined his own troop surge in Afghanistan by announcing a withdrawal timetable; he told the enemy that they’ll own Afghanistan if they can just hang on through 2014.
Romney was right to point out that Obama was wrong to nudge Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office when the president must have known that the anti-Israel and anti-American Muslim Brotherhood would move in. Obama countered, “In Egypt, we stood on the side of democracy.”
Alas, the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t stand on the side of democracy.
I am not under the illusion that if elected to the Oval Office, Romney would be so muscular diplomatically that Syrian President Bashar Assad would crumble. I also never was under the illusion that Obama would charm strongmen into a strategic alliance.
In 2008, candidate Obama warned, “We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago.” On Monday night, Obama returned to that theme when he said, “When I came into office, the world was divided.”
Today the world is even more fractured and more dangerous than it was four years ago. It may be that there is no right side of history.
Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is email@example.com