Following Mitt Romney's repeated claims during the presidential debate that he largely agrees with President Obama on foreign policy, mainstream media adopted the narrative that little separates the candidates on this issue. In fact, this narrative allows Romney to disavow extreme positions.
Media Claimed There Is "Little Daylight" Between Obama, Romney
NPR: "Little Daylight Between Obama, Romney." In an article headlined "Debate Takeaway: Little Daylight Between Obama, Romney," NPR reported:
Romney expressed agreement with Obama administration policies nearly as often as he disdained them. At one point he began an answer by saying, "I want to underscore the same point the president made ..."
Romney instead congratulated the president for killing Osama bin Laden and sought to "underscore" his agreement with at least some current policies with regard to Afghanistan, Syria and Iran.
Rather than accepting compliments where he could get them, Obama essentially accused Romney of being a flip-flopper and having shifted his positions. [National Public Radio, 10/23/12]
CBS: "There Is Little Difference Between The Two Men On Foreign Policy." A CBS News analysis of the debate reported that Romney "declined to draw strong distinctions between his positions and Obama administration policy" partially because "there is little difference between the two men on foreign policy":
[Romney] declined to draw strong distinctions between his positions and Obama administration policy. That's partially because, when all is said and done, there is little difference between the two men on foreign policy. But it was also, Romney aides said following the debate, a strategic decision. The calculation was that Romney did not need to be particularly aggressive: He could look presidential by declining to go on the attack and letting the incumbent assume the attack-dog mode that is traditionally associated with the challenger. [CBS News, 10/22/12]
Wash. Times: "Debate Served To Highlight Just How Little Daylight There Is Between The Two Men" On Foreign Policy. A Washington Times review of the debate noted that Romney's position on Afghanistan has shifted, but nevertheless concluded there is "little daylight" between Obama and Romney:
The foreign policy-focused debate served to highlight just how little daylight there is between the two men on the big basic foreign policy choices, ranging from handling the civil war in Syria to unequivocally backing Israel to using drones to attack terrorist targets to trying to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions. [The Washington Times, 10/22/12]
WSJ: "The Difference Was Mainly One Of Tone." While the Wall Street Journal noted that Romney "appeared to temper some of the tough stances he has taken on foreign-policy issues during the campaign," it nevertheless reported that the two candidates "were in broad agreement" on foreign policy, but that on issues they disagreed, "the difference was mainly one of tone":
On a whole range of issues, including ending the war in Afghanistan, the possibility of U.S. military intervention in Syria and the use of drones as a tool of national-security policy, the two candidates were in broad agreement. They differed more sharply over how to tackle China's rise and thwart Iran's nuclear program, but in the main, the difference was mainly one of tone.
Throughout the debate Mr. Romney appeared to temper some of the tough stances he has taken on foreign-policy issues during the campaign.
He passed up an opportunity at the start of the debate to continue his pointed criticism of Mr. Obama's handling of the attack last month on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador. [The Wall Street Journal, 10/23/12]
In Fact, Romney Not Only Disavowed His Extreme Foreign Policy Positions ...
Salon: Romney Disavowed "Virtually Everything He's Said On Foreign Policy." In an article analyzing the debate, Salon editor Joan Walsh wrote that she was "horrified by Romney's capacity to disavow virtually everything he's said on foreign policy":
Romney should be doing a walk of shame today, after reversing most of his irresponsible, hawkish foreign policy statements from the last year just to have a hot night with undecided female voters in the final debate. How does he live with himself?
Beyond scoring the debate on style points though, why aren't more people horrified by Romney's capacity to disavow virtually everything he's said on foreign policy and cuddle up with Obama, in order to seem less frightening to voters? On Afghanistan, on Iran, on abandoning Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, on killing Osama bin Laden, on Syria, on drones, Romney mostly said "me too" to Obama's policies. [Salon, 10/23/12]
Reuters: "Romney's Etch a Sketch Foreign Policy." A Reuters column headlined "Romney's Etch a Sketch Foreign Policy" highlighted several of Romney's "new" foreign policy positions from the October 22 debate, and noted that his new stances on Libya, Afghanistan, and Pakistan were "far more moderate than the ones Romney adopted in the Republican primaries":
During last night's foreign policy debate in the U.S. presidential election campaign, the Mitt Romney of the Republican primaries disappeared.
Romney's April criticism of Obama's decision to commit the United States military to helping oust Muammar Qaddafi in Libya disappeared. Missing was a promise on his website to reduce foreign aid by $100 million. Romney's past criticism of what he called Obama's rushed exit from Afghanistan vanished as well.
Given his lurch to the center on domestic policy, that comes as no surprise. But it does not make Romney's record - or his willingness to change positions - a nonissue.
Last night the new Romney praised Obama's toppling of Qaddafi, said he supported the president's policy in Afghanistan and agreed that the administration's economic sanctions on Iran were "crippling."
When asked about whether the U.S. should "divorce" Pakistan, he counseled patience and correctly said it was in the interests of the United States to try to help stabilize a troubled, nuclear-armed country. And he largely endorsed Obama's plan to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Yet all those positions were far more moderate than the ones Romney adopted in the Republican primaries.
After what should have been a pivotal 90 minutes, I know less about Romney's foreign policy vision than I did beforehand. I only know his electoral calculus. [Reuters, 10/23/12]
NY Times: "Today's Moderation Was A Far Cry From The Gun-Toting Positions Mr. Romney Used To Win The Primaries." A blog post by New York Times editorial board member David Firestone noted Romney's shifting stance on foreign policy throughout the campaign:
Is Mitt Romney a neoconservative? Or an isolationist? Is he a hard-eyed realist? A democracy-spreading dreamer? Or a strutting warmonger? He has been all those things over the course of his campaign, and he followed a similar pattern at Monday night's debate.
Every time Mr. Romney shrugged and essentially conceded that the administration is already doing the right thing around the world - on Syria, on Iranian sanctions, on drones - Mr. Obama would sarcastically remind viewers that today's moderation was a far cry from the gun-toting positions Mr. Romney used to win the primaries. [New York Times¸10/23/12]
... He Evinced "A Striking Departure" From Previous Positions
Romney During Debate: U.S. Should "Dissuade Iran From Having A Nuclear Weapon Through Peaceful And Diplomatic Means." During the October 22 presidential debate, Romney claimed he wanted to use "peaceful and diplomatic means" to "dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon," despite his previous insistence on military action.
ROMNEY: It's also essential for us to understand what our mission is in Iran, and that is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means. And crippling sanctions are something I'd called for five years ago when I was in Israel speaking at the Herzliya Conference. I laid out seven steps. [National Public Radio, 10/22/12]
Romney In June: "The Iranians Will Have No Question But That I Would Be Willing To Take Military Action." During a Face the Nation interview in June, Romney stated that there was "no question" that he would be willing "to take military action" against Iran:
ROMNEY: I can assure you if I'm President, the Iranians will have no question but that I would be willing to take military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world. I-- I don't believe at this stage, therefore, if I'm President, that we need to have war powers approval or a special authorization for military force. The President has that capacity now. [CBS News, Face the Nation, 6/17/12]
NY Times: Romney's Remarks On Iran "A Striking Departure" From Previous Positions. In a fact check of his remarks, the New York Times noted that Romney's remarks on Iran were "a striking departure from the more hawkish tone he has used throughout the campaign":
Mr. Romney's remark that he wants to use "peaceful and diplomatic means" to persuade Iran not to pursue its nuclear program was a striking departure from the more hawkish tone he has used throughout the campaign.
And it was only a few weeks ago that Mr. Romney called for more muscle-flexing aimed at Iran -- saying that he would "restore the permanent presence of aircraft carrier task forces in both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Gulf region" -- in a speech on Oct. 8 at the Virginia Military Institute.
"For the sake of peace, we must make clear to Iran through actions -- not just words -- that their nuclear pursuit will not be tolerated,'' he said.
And Mr. Romney has long been dismissive of Mr. Obama's attempts to use diplomacy to persuade Iran to abandon its weapons programs.
"In his first TV interview as president, he said we should talk to Iran,'' Mr. Romney said in his speech at the Republican National Convention. "We're still talking, and Iran's centrifuges are still spinning." [The New York Times, 10/23/12]
Romney During Debate: "I Felt The Same As The President Did" In Ousting Hosni Mubarak. During the October 22 presidential debate, Romney stated that he supported Obama's decision to oust Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak:
SCHIEFFER: Governor Romney, I want to hear your response to that, but I would just ask you, would you have stuck with Mubarak?
ROMNEY: No, I believe, as the president indicated and said at the time, that I supported his -- his action there. I felt that -- I wish we'd have had a better vision of the future. I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president's term and even further back than that, that we'd have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world and that we would have worked more aggressively with our -- our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government such that it didn't explode in the way it did.
But once it exploded, I felt the same as the president did, which is these -- these freedom voices in the -- the streets of Egypt where the people who were speaking of our principles and the -- the -- President Mubarak had done things which were unimaginable, and the idea of him crushing his people was not something that we could possibly support. [National Public Radio, 10/22/12]
Romney In July: "President Obama Abandoned The Freedom Agenda" That Could Have Pushed Mubarak Toward A More Democratic Posture. In an interview with an Israeli newspaper in July, Romney suggested that President Bush's "freedom agenda" could have urged Mubarak toward a more democratic agenda if only it hadn't been halted by Obama. From the interview:
You say that Obama failed in many areas especially in foreign policy. How do you view the Arab Spring and the way in which the U.S. responded to the uprisings in those Arab states?
"Clearly we're disappointed in seeing Tunisia and Morocco elect Islamist governments. We're very concerned in seeing the new leader in Egypt as an Islamist leader. It is our hope to move these nations toward a more modern view of the world and to not present a threat to their neighbors and to the other nations of the world."
"The Arab Spring is not appropriately named. It has become a development of more concern and it occurred in part because of the reluctance on the part of various dictators to provide more freedom to their citizens. President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner." [Israel Hayom, 7/27/12]
Foreign Policy: Romney Previously "Suggested That Mubarak Could Have Been Persuaded To Reform." In fact, the Romney campaign has made contradictory statements regarding Mubarak, as Foreign Policy detailed, including his suggestion that "Mubarak could have been persuaded to reform":
In an interview with Israel Hayom, the GOP presidential candidate declared that the Arab Spring "is not appropriately named" because of Islamist victories in the region and suggested that Mubarak could have been persuaded to reform, had President Obama not bungled the effort:
President [George W.] Bush urged [deposed Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak to move toward a more democratic posture, but President Obama abandoned the freedom agenda and we are seeing today a whirlwind of tumult in the Middle East in part because these nations did not embrace the reforms that could have changed the course of their history, in a more peaceful manner. [Foreign Policy, 10/12/12]
Romney: "When I'm President, We'll Make Sure We Bring Our Troops Out By The End Of 2014." During the October 22 debate, Romney adopted Obama's position on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, saying "we [should] bring our troops out by the end of 2014":
ROMNEY: Well, we're going to be finished by 2014. And when I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so. We've seen progress over the past several years. The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding apace. There are now a large number of Afghan security forces, 350,000, that are -- are ready to step in to provide security. And -- and we're going to be able to make that transition by the end of -- of 2014. So our troops'll come home at that point. [National Public Radio, 10/22/12]
FactCheck.org: Romney's Position On Afghanistan "A Change." A FactCheck.org review of the October 22 debate noted that Romney's comments on Afghanistan were "a change," writing:
In the past, Romney had said that announcing a specific date for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops was among Obama's "biggest mistakes." He later told ABC News that he also would adhere to "the same time frame the president is speaking of" for turning over responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, but qualified that by saying withdrawal depended on what military commanders tell him and on circumstances "on the ground."
This time there were no such qualifiers. Romney said flatly: "[W]e're going to be able to make that transition by the end of -- of 2014. So our troops'll come home at that point." And for the record, both Obama and Romney have left the door open for leaving a residual force of support troops behind, if the Afghans agree. [FactCheck.org, 10/23/12]
CNN: "Romney's Change Of Heart May Have Something To Do With The Fact That According To A Poll In March, Less Than A Quarter Of Americans Continued To Back The Afghan War." In noting Romney's new position on Afghanistan, CNN wondered whether it was related to polling data that found that "half of Americans actually favored speeding up the planned 2014 withdrawal":
Just two weeks ago in a keynote foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney said of the Afghanistan drawdown, "I'll evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation."
This seemed to leave on the table the prospect of U.S. combat troops remaining in Afghanistan after the scheduled drawdown date at the end of 2014 were Romney to be elected and was one of the few tangible significant differences on national security between the two candidates.
But during Monday's debate, Romney echoed the Obama position: "When I'm president, we'll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014. The commanders and the generals there are on track to do so."
Romney's change of heart may have something to do with the fact that according to a poll in March, less than a quarter of Americans continued to back the Afghan War. Another poll in the same month found that half of Americans actually favored speeding up the planned 2014 withdrawal. [CNN News, 10/23/12]