On Syria, Mitt Romney won—but only on points, certainly not with a knockout blow. Mr. Romney addressed the question in a manner that showed a superior strategic vision. He framed the civil war in Syria as an opportunity, a chance to strike at Iran. “Syria,” Mr. Romney said, “is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world,” stressing the role the regime of Bashar al-Assad plays as Iran’s base for extending its influence in the eastern Mediterranean. Toppling Mr. Assad, Mr. Romney correctly explained, would deal a blow to Hezbollah and roll back Iranian influence throughout the region.
By contrast, President Obama listed a number of actions that his administration has taken, but failed to place them in a wider context. He did not even mention Iran in the course of the discussion.
Syria represents a very rare thing in international politics: a crisis in which our strategic interests and values are in perfect alignment. At least 30,000 have died, and millions have been made refugees. As the greatest power in the Middle East, the United States is untrue to itself if it fails to take decisive action against a dictator who murders civilians with impunity.
Yet in fact, the Obama administration has been relatively passive, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently complained. “Right now,” Mr. Erdogan said, “there are certain things being expected from the United States,” but America has “not yet catered to those expectations.” In the debate tonight, Mr. Romney struck a similar note, stressing that America “should be playing the leadership role.”
But Mr. Romney did not define a clear path forward. The president claimed that Romney “doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate, Syrian leadership.” There was truth in the statement.
At a moment when there is no appetite among Americans for a new foreign adventure, Mr. Romney was careful to stress that he did not support deploying the American military in Syria. He even rejected the idea of enforcing a no-fly zone. Yet an American-implemented no-fly zone is precisely what is needed to turn the Romney strategic vision into a practical reality.
Mr. Romney displayed a much better grasp of the strategic stakes in Syria, but when it came to specifics, his policy differed little from the president’s.