Published October 25. 2012 4:00AM
There are moments when you can glimpse an emerging bipartisan consensus on foreign policy, and Monday night's presidential debate was one of them: Barack Obama and Mitt Romney knew they were speaking to a war-weary country and talked in nearly identical terms about bringing troops home, avoiding new conflicts - and countering terrorism without embracing a "global war."
Obama has been articulating versions of this foreign-policy approach for the last four years, not always with clarity or evident public support. But it was obvious Monday night that we are living in a changed world - where the combative ethos of George W. Bush is truly gone - when Romney said in his first debate answer: "We can't kill our way out of this mess."
This rejection of what was described just a few years ago as the "long war" is something I hear from four-star generals and soldiers in the field, and it's increasingly evident in the public-opinion polls. Monday's debate ratified that America in 2012 wants to settle the conflicts it has and avoid new ones.
Even if Obama should lose on Nov. 6, this emerging consensus might well be his legacy. Just as Bush saw the country through the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, and took America into two long and painful wars in the Muslim world, Obama voiced a public desire to "turn a page," as he likes to say, and end the decade of war - at least the open, "boots on the ground" part.
Obama's alternative to traditional military conflict has been drone attacks, and Romney endorsed this approach of targeted killing, too. That's another part of the new American consensus, and it deserves more public discussion.
Romney's answers had the soft polish that comes from focus groups and poll testing. He backed Obama's sanctions strategy toward Iran and said he favored military action only as a last resort; he declared Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan a success and promised not to remain there past 2014, even if Afghanistan is fracturing; he rejected military intervention in Syria, including a no-fly zone.
"We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan," insisted Romney. He said he wanted to "help the Muslim world," through economic development, education, gender equality and the rule of law. Undoubtedly, he was chasing the women's vote in these pacific answers, but the very fact that Romney is something of a weathervane - a man who trims his positions to political need - reinforces my sense of the public mood.
With Romney so determined to play the peacemaker, it fell to Obama to voice what might have been Romney's best lines: Obama was the first to express passionate support for Israel, "a true friend." He spoke of America as the "indispensable nation." And he had the relentlessly pugnacious, in-your-face presence of a man who wanted to be seen as in command.
What does polling tell us about the public mood the two candidates were channeling? A good summary was compiled by Michael J. Mazarr, a professor at the National Defense University, in a recent article in The Washington Quarterly. He noted a Pew Research Center poll that found the percentage of Americans who think the country should "mind its own business internationally" had jumped from 30 percent in 2002 to 49 percent in 2009.
America's wariness of global conflict is obvious in other recent Pew Research Center polling. A September 2012 sample found that the percentage of Americans who list terrorism as "very important" to their vote has fallen by 12 points since 2008. In September interviews, just after the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, 45 percent of the public approved Obama's handling of the situation, versus just 26 percent who endorsed Romney's approach. In an October poll, 63 percent of those surveyed wanted to see the U.S. "less involved" in the Middle East.
I wish I'd heard more clarity from the candidates about how the United States will shape an Islamic world in turmoil, remove Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria and keep Afghanistan from a civil war - all without using U.S. troops. That's the real debate this war-weary country needs - about alternative ways to project American power in a highly unstable era of transition.
But Monday's basic message was clear: The country may be divided one many issues, but it's united in not wanting another war.