"The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull," said Dean Acheson.
During the final presidential debate, Mitt Romney was every bit the statesman. On foreign policy issues, he was well informed, earnest and gaffe-free. He refused to take the bait of hypothetical questions or Barack Obama's continual attacks. When Obama unleashed fireworks, Romney smothered them with a blanket.
We know from the second debate that Romney is pricklier than this. So his self-restraint was also evidence of a strategy. It amounted to a bold bet that boldness was not required. Romney set out to be relentlessly reassuring. Instead of pointing out contrasts, he systematically attended to his own credibility.
Romney often acted as if he were the only person on the stage -- like a man trying to paint a self-portrait in the midst of a food fight. The image that emerged was a foreign policy moderate in tone and substance. Romney seemed a man who holds certain values but lacks disruptive projects and causes. He criticized Obama's foreign policy mainly on implementation -- pressure for Middle Eastern reform should have come earlier, Iranian sanctions should be tighter -- rather than proposing an alternative grand strategy.
Romney summarized his own views as "principles of peace." No direct intervention in Syria. No extension of the withdrawal deadline in Afghanistan. "We can't kill our way out of this mess," he insisted, unexpectedly pointing to the limits of drone strikes and special operations. In a deft, sophisticated move, Romney recommended a comprehensive soft-power strategy in the Middle East -- economic development, better education, gender equality, the rule of law -- as an alternative to later, messier interventions.
All this was an homage -- perhaps a conscious one -- to Ronald Reagan's debate performance in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. Reagan was fighting a reputation for militarism and intemperance. …