Conor Friedersdorf is half-right in his debate preview on Romney and foreign policy:
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.
Whether Romney “actually believes this stuff” or not is not the issue. What matters is that he feels compelled to take these positions despite the fact that most of them tend to be unpopular, and these positions reflect prevailing views among his advisers and his hawkish supporters. The fact that he consistently panders to foreign policy hard-liners even during the general election, and the fact that he has remained remarkably consistent in his own hard-line positions should tell us that this is what we should expect from Romney once in office. Romney didn’t really “pivot” to the “center” in the first debate, and we shouldn’t expect him to contradict the foreign policy speech he just gave at VMI last week.
That doesn’t mean that we should expect to hear Romney declaring his enthusiasm for the entire Syrian opposition. Romney will more likely attack the administration’s minimal, indirect arming of the opposition through the Gulf states, which has resulted in arms being shipped to jihadists. He could attack this policy despite the fact that Romney has been calling for a more aggressive version of the same policy. Even though it makes no sense, he could try to say that the arming of jihadists is the sort of thing that wouldn’t happen if he were in charge. It will be untrue and opportunistic, but it won’t put him in a position of opposing support for all of the Syrian opposition. He won’t take that position because stating support for Assad’s enemies is more important for most of Romney’s hawkish advisers and supporters.
Let me add a point about terminology. “Centrism” in foreign policy debate tends to mean reliable support for the status quo with respect to the U.S. role in the world. Romney very much wants to present himself as the defender of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus, and he wants to pretend that Obama and Carter are the only post-WWII outliers*. Expect something related to that to come up during the debate. Romney won’t be “moving to the center” tonight in part because he thinks he is already there, and in some ways he is. “Centrists” are often more hawkish and interventionist than the rank-and-file of either party, and they tend to see a much larger role for America overseas than most Americans do. If Romney started sounding more like Rand Paul on foreign policy (which isn’t going to happen), that would represent a move away from this kind of “center.” Sounding less like a Bush-era interventionist would make Romney less “centrist.”
I expect that we will hear Romney make some of the statements Conor listed, but he will frame them differently than Conor has. Romney won’t follow his positions through to their logical conclusions, and it will be up to the moderator or Obama to point these things out. If Romney criticizes withdrawal from Iraq, he isn’t going to say that he favored keeping a U.S. presence there indefinitely. Instead, he might try to recast the issue as one of American “retreat” and lack of “leadership.” As long as he can keep the debate on these issues as generic as possible, he might be able to avoid suffering any major setbacks on foreign policy tonight. Unless he is called out for a major misrepresentation or glaring factual error, Romney won’t have to change any of his previous commitments, but can repackage them in generic terms that will sound less alarming. In that case, he will be able create the impression by the end of the debate that he isn’t beholden to the hard-liners in his party when he clearly is.
* Obama and Carter are also obviously part of the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy.