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Shortly before Mitt Romney’s much-hyped (and ultimately underwhelming) foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute, The New York Times reported that even Romney’s own advisors had no idea what the Republican nominee’s foreign policy would look like should he become Commander-in-Chief. His performance at the third and final presidential debate on Monday night at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, must have confirmed their doubts.

On issue after issue, Romney disavowed the same positions that he and his neoconservative advisors have embraced throughout the campaign. While he successfully distanced himself from the deeply unpopular foreign policy of the George W. Bush administration, he ultimately left voters with little notion of what he actually believes when it comes to international affairs.

Unlike the first two debates, Romney spent almost the entire night in Boca Raton agreeing with Obama. From the very first question — on Libya, the topic that Romney clumsily used in attempting to attack the president during the last debate — it was clear that he would not be playing offense. Although Romney repeatedly criticized the president’s supposed lack of leadership, he essentially endorsed the Obama administration’s policies on issue after issue. On Syria, Romney said that he wanted to use diplomacy to remove Bashar al-Assad without American military intervention, which is exactly what the Obama administration is doing. On Iran, Romney stressed that military action should be a last resort to prevent the Islamic Republic from obtaining a nuclear weapon, only to be used if sanctions and diplomatic pressure fail. On Afghanistan, Romney endorsed the same 2014 exit date that President Obama has promised.

In some instances Romney was even more explicit. Asked about President Obama’s handling of the Egyptian revolution, he acknowleged that “I supported his action there” — and on drone strikes against al Qaeda and the Taliban, Romney acknowledged that “the president was right to up the usage of that technology.”

Implicit in Romney’s support for many Obama administration policies was his rejection of the Bush administration’s almost universally discredited handling of foreign affairs. This may be a tough sell, however, given that 17 of the Republican’s 24 special advisors on foreign policy served in the Bush administration. Indeed, Romney’s declaration that “we don’t want another Iraq” probably came as a surprise to his most visible foreign policy advisor, Dan Senor, who served as chief spokesperson for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, and may be the only remaining American who still considers that war a success. Similarly, Romney’s call to indict Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad under the Genocide Convention must have startled his potential Secretary of State John Bolton, who may be the most vocal living critic of the International Criminal Court (even louder than the outlaws prosecuted there).

Romney’s sudden embrace of the Obama administration’s foreign policy might have been more persuasive had he not been sharing the stage with Barack Obama himself. The president repeatedly called Romney out for trying to Etch-a-Sketch away his troublesome positions. At one point he chided Romney forcefully, saying “one thing that I’ve learned as Commander-in-Chief” is that “you’ve got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean.”

Obama later observed sharply, “Governor, the problem is, that on a whole range of issues, whether it’s the Middle East, whether it’s Afghanistan, whether it’s Iraq, whether it’s now Iran, you’ve been all over the map.”  The president went on to point out that — despite Romney’s newfound support for Obama’s policies — he has in the past endorsed a pre-emptive strike against Iran, called the ouster of Muammar Gadhafi “mission creep,” opposed both the end of the war in Iraq and the introduction of a timeline to end the war in Afghanistan, and claimed that “we shouldn’t move heaven and Earth” to kill Osama bin Laden.

Obama was clearly more at ease with the policy issues than Romney, and throughout the 90-minute showdown he upbraided Romney, nimbly and forcefully, as unprepared to lead. In an early line that largely summed up Obama’s treatment of his opponent throughout the debate, he turned to Romney and said: “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”

The president also took pains to rebut Romney’s false attacks. He scored the line of the night by chastising Romney for his oft-repeated criticism that the U.S. Navy now has fewer ships than in 1916: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.”

The optics of the debate strongly favored President Obama as well. He appeared calm, confident, and eager to defend his record on foreign affairs. By contrast, Romney appeared to be perspiring, uncomfortable, and unsure what point he wanted to prove.

Still, Romney managed to avert disaster by preventing Obama from landing a decisive blow as he did at the second debate — notably, Romney didn’t utter the word “Benghazi” a single time — and by successfully steering the conversation from foreign policy to the friendlier territory of the economy. Much of the middle section of the debate was spent discussing the deficit, jobs, and education, and Romney tellingly avoided foreign policy altogether in his closing statement (instead giving an abridged version of his stump speech promising to jumpstart the economy.)

Ultimately, while President Obama scored a clear victory in the final presidential debate — an outcome that snap polls confirm — the damage could have been worse for Romney. Foreign policy has long been President Obama’s strongest selling point, and Romney’s weakest. By choosing to echo Obama’s popular policies instead of embrace the failed Bush doctrine, Romney picked the best of bad options — any of which would have led to a debate loss.

Six years into Romney’s quest for the White House, voters face the same problem as Romney’s own advisors. They still don’t know with any certainty what philosophy and policies the Republican would adopt if he ever enters the Oval Office.

Photo credit: AP/Evan Vucci

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