A Debate-Night Mystery: Will Mitt Romney Hedge on Foreign Policy?

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In his last match-up with President Obama, he moved toward the center on domestic matters. Is national security or civil liberties next?

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In the second presidential debate tonight, listen closely to Mitt Romney's rhetoric on foreign policy, terrorism, and civil liberties. If he disclaims past positions and targets the median voter, as he did in the debate on domestic policy that won him praise, breathe a relieved sigh: It means he's as willing to shape shift on national security as any other subject. But if he keeps complaining that America should've stayed in Iraq longer; that it should intervene elsewhere more often; that no cuts to the military are permissible; that torture should be brought back; that Gitmo should be doubled; and that the United States is insufficiently assertive in its actions and rhetoric, it's best to assume he actually believes this stuff. There certainly isn't any electoral advantage to running as a Bushian.


So why do it if you're not one?

So far, Romney's stances have cost him the chance to hit Obama where he is weakest on these subjects.

Take Libya, where Obama intervened without congressional permission, violating his own avowed understanding of the law. A dictator eventually fell without any American casualties. But the ensuing power vacuum empowered al Qaeda-affiliated Islamists in neighboring Mali, proved a humanitarian disaster, and preceded the killing of the American ambassador. "It's easy to see why the administration would hope that the Benghazi attack were just spontaneous mob violence rather than a sign of Al Qaeda's growing presence in post intervention Libya," Ross Douthat notes. "The only good news for Obama in this mess is the fact that Romney, always intent on projecting toughness, hasn't attacked the original decision to go to war in Libya, or tied the intervention itself to Al Qaeda's North African advances. If the Republican nominee were less reflexively hawkish, the White House might be facing the more comprehensive critique that it deserves -- and the story wouldn't be about just the specifics of Benghazi, but also the possibility that Obama's entire policy in the region has put American interests and lives at risk."

So it goes on a wide range of national-security issues, encompassing everything from the drone war to civil-liberties violations. There's no room to critique Obama "from the right." There is plenty of room to critique him "from the left." If Romney said, "I'm a hawk in the War on Terrorism, but even I don't think the president should have the power to kill American citizens in secret -- that's just reckless," he'd have an issue that would win him votes, and cost him none. But he's campaigned as if Liz Cheney has veto power over anything he says on those issues.

With two debates left this is the last possible moment to change course. I am betting against that happening. As best as I can tell, the man learned nothing from the mistakes of 2000 to 2008.

But this is Mitt Romney. There is seemingly no flip-flop he is too ashamed to execute.

So I keep attuned to his statements.

For example, back in January, Romney was emphatic in arguing that the president should have the power to detain American citizens without trial, and that Obama wouldn't abuse that power. He says as much in the course of affirming that he would've voted for the National Defense Authorization Act:
 


On Wednesday, he sounded like a different person:
Mitt Romney sidestepped questions Wednesday about whether he would have signed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that authorizes the indefinite detention of terror suspects, including American citizens, saying he didn't have enough information on the law.

Responding to a question at a town hall style meeting at a large manufacturer here, the Republican presidential nominee said he will take a look "at that particular piece of legislation" and said that when it comes to the issue of indefinite detention he would try to strike a balance between protecting personal liberties and protecting the nation from terrorist attacks.
As you can see, Romney has no problem emphatically supporting something one month, and claiming months later that he doesn't even have enough information to judge it on the merits.

Shady, isn't it?

And he can't help but know that Americans wanted out of Iraq, want out of Afghanistan, don't want America involved in Syria, and don't want a huge new war against Iran. If he positions himself to Obama's right in the next couple debates, the most logical conclusion is that he'll govern accordingly, because he really believes that these policies should be pushed. Stay tuned.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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