Editor’s note: Peter Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst, is director of the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation and the author of the new book “Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden — From 9/11 to Abbottabad.”
(CNN) — Mitt Romney came to Monday night’s debate with a choice.
He could run to the right of President Obama on national security issues and also differentiate himself on such tricky matters as what to do about Syria, or the United States’ complicated alliance with Pakistan.
Or he could essentially endorse Obama’s aggressive campaign against American enemies such as al Qaeda and the Iranian regime and his administration’s approach to knotty problems such as Syria and Afghanistan.
Despite some earlier campaign rhetoric, Romney chose to align himself almost completely with the Obama administration’s approaches to these issues.
In a general election this makes good sense, as this happens to be in tune with what most Americans think. A majority do not want to become embroiled in a war with Iran and are comfortable with the muscular use of CIA drones against al Qaeda in Pakistan, which is one of the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s approach to combating terrorism.
Romney decried the deaths of 30,000 Syrians in the revolt against dictator Bashar al-Assad and was adamant that the al-Assad regime must and will go, but underlined that in his administration there would be no U.S. military role to end the bloodshed. “I don’t want to have our military involved in Syria,” Romney declared.
Romney also explained that he would ensure that “responsible” Syrian opposition groups would get arms while simultaneously halting “arms that get into the — the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”
That’s exactly the Obama administration’s position. It is not getting the U.S. military involved in Syria and is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are arming the Syrian rebels, but is also pressuring those allies to ensure that heavy weapons do not flow into the hands of jihadist groups — not an easy task, given the present chaos in Syria.
Neither Obama nor Romney raised the idea in the debate of enforcing some kind of no-fly zone over Syria, which would likely be a real game changer, as al-Assad’s forces presently enjoy almost complete air superiority over the rebels.
On Iran, Romney was adamant that the country must not acquire a nuclear weapon, saying that he would impose “crippling” sanctions to ensure this goal.
That’s, of course, the Obama administration’s current policy. The sanctions currently in place on Iran, as Obama correctly noted in the debate, have caused the Iranian currency to drop 80% in value since the end of 2011.
And the Obama administration, working closely with the Israelis, has unleashed a quite effective series of cyberattacks against the Iranian nuclear program — known as the Stuxnet and Flame viruses — which have set back the nuclear program significantly, a fact that neither candidate mentioned.
Romney did proffer the slightly batty idea of indicting Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has called for the destruction of Israel, under what Romney termed the Genocide Convention, on the grounds that Ahmadinejad’s “words amount to genocide incitation.”
When there are still real genocides to be prosecuted, this seems both like a waste of time and also promotes the un-American idea of prosecuting hateful speech.
On the covert CIA drone program in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, Romney gave the Obama administration a ringing endorsement: “I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology.”
And on whether the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak had to go during the “Arab Spring,” both Romney and Obama strongly agreed: He had to go.
Each candidate tried to outdo the other to express the strongest possible support for Israel, saying interchangeable things about Israel being a true friend and the U.S. having Israel’s back if it was attacked. Swing voters in Florida won’t find any “daylight” between the candidates on this issue!
Neither candidate suggested what a plausible way forward might entail to help shape a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, something the United States once played a leading role in trying to negotiate.
When asked by the moderator, CBS’s Bob Schieffer, if it was time to “divorce” America’s problematic ally Pakistan, Romney was adamant: “No, it’s not time to divorce a nation on earth that has a hundred nuclear weapons and is on the way to double that at some point, a nation that has serious threats from terrorist groups.”
This is exactly the Obama administration’s stance on Pakistan.
Both candidates avoided discussing in any detail what surely will consume considerable time of the next commander in chief after he assumes office in January 2013 — how to responsibly wind down America’s longest war, the conflict in Afghanistan.
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.
There is also the small matter that the date of the planned 2014 withdrawal of U.S. combat troops has been negotiated and agreed to not only by the Afghan government, but also by NATO allies and the more than 40 countries with some kind of presence in Afghanistan.
For his part, during the debate Obama did not mention the Strategic Partnership Agreement that his administration has spent considerable effort in negotiating with Afghanistan that would keep some as-yet-unspecified number of American troops in an advisory role in Afghanistan up until 2024.
Whoever is in the Oval Office next year is scheduled to complete the negotiations of this long-term agreement with the Afghan government. It will spell out in detail the roles and numbers of what will likely be many thousands of American troops who could remain in Afghanistan for a decade beyond 2014.
This fact went unmentioned in Monday’s debate because few Americans have any appetite left for the Afghan intervention.
Where there was major disagreement was on defense spending, which the Romney campaign says should not be cut. Romney cited a factoid that he has used before on the campaign trail, which is that the U.S. Navy today is supposedly smaller than it was in 1917.
This set up Obama for some of his best lines of the night: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”
This served implicitly to make a larger point, which is that other than some vague gauzy rhetoric about the need for America to be stronger, Romney has never really articulated a strategy distinct from Obama’s that would necessitate the larger military that he is calling for.
In any event, the notion that the U.S. is falling behind militarily is laughable. Last year the U.S. spent more on defense than the 13 countries with the next highest defense budgets combined.
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