President Barack Obama managed to escape Monday night's presidential debate on foreign policy without having to defend either his escalation of the war in Afghanistan or his unprecedented use of drones to attack suspected militants -- including American citizens -- in countries where the U.S. is not technically at war.
In a battle of optics rather than genuine disagreements, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney vaguely accused Obama of weakness, and Obama depicted Romney as flighty.
But there was no disagreement on Afghanistan, where Romney actually closed the gap between the two candidates by endorsing a firm 2014 deadline for troop withdrawal. Romney also applauded Obama's use of drones. So there were no arguments, and no pointed questions.
There would have been plenty to talk about. Obama's secretive drone war in Pakistan and Yemen is unprecedented, and operating by rules the Obama administration has in some ways made up as it goes along.
The White House's constant claims of limited civilian deaths have been authoritatively refuted.
Obama has even unilaterally approved the targeted killing by drone of an American citizen who was a senior al Qaeda figure.
U.S. tactics arguably violate the laws of war.
And Mitt Romney, should he win, would of course take over the drone fleet with what some have argued is no oversight or checks and balances to hold him back.
But when asked about drones by moderator Bob Schieffer, Romney enthusiastically endorsed Obama's position. "I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends," Romney said.
Obama then ignored the question entirely, and didn't even mention the word drone once all night.
The ongoing and deadly war in Afghanistan didn't come up until more than halfway through the debate.
When it did, Obama took credit for refocusing attention there. He said his actions had put the U.S. "in a position where we can transition out, because there’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country."
But there is little evidence that Obama's "surge" -- he ordered an additional 33,000 troops to Afghanistan in early 2009, the last of whom have just now left -- accomplished much besides fulfilling his 2008 campaign promise to take up the fight there again.
And Obama's decision resulted in a huge increase in fatalities. Of the 2,141 U.S. servicemembers killed in Afghanistan over the past 11 years, 1,511 -- or 70 percent -- died during the Obama presidency.
The New York Times reporter David E. Sanger, in his recent book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power, writes that Obama began a “reassessment of whether the war was as necessary as he first believed,” just months after ordering the surge.
And by June 2011, Sanger writes, “Obama had learned … that he could not remake Afghanistan." In other words, Sanger writes that it took Obama two years to reach conclusions that were obvious to people in the foreign policy establishment well before he even took office.
But why did he wait two years? And why wait two more?
Martha Raddatz, the ABC News reporter who moderated the Oct. 11 vice presidential debate, asked a variation of that question: "So tell me, why not leave now? What more can we really accomplish? Is it worth more American lives?"
Schieffer, by contrast, asked if the 2014 deadline might slip.
Romney had previously blasted Obama for providing a timeline for the enemy and had declared that a 2014 departure date should simply be a goal, dependent on "conditions on the ground."
But on Monday night, Romney made it a deadline, too. "Well, we’re going to be finished by 2014. And when I’m president, we’ll make sure we bring our troops out by the end of 2014," he said.
Obama used Romney's reversal as another example of the Republican's "wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map."
Left unsaid by either candidate was that 2014 is two more years of combat, and two more years of sending the "other 1 percent" into harm's way.
And for what? Most objective reports from Afghanistan indicate a chronic lack of success at nation-building or training troops, with $90 billion spent on reconstruction and little to show for it. The latest trend in the battle has been "green-on-blue" attacks, where the Afghan soldiers the U.S is training turn on them and open fire.
Also left unsaid was that both candidates have left open the possibility of leaving a residual force in Afghanistan past 2014, which means that the U.S. policy toward Afghanistan will likely continue to cost taxpayers billions each year.
Neither candidate answered the specific question Schieffer asked, which was, "What do you do if the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security?" Ironically, that's almost the exact same question then-Sen. Obama asked then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about Iraq in early 2007.
The two candidates spent a lot of time battling over who is more loyal to Israel -- with Romney arguably winning, especially when he declared Iran's nuclear ambitions to be a greater threat to U.S. national security than terrorism. They also battled over who can be tougher on Iran.
The biggest actual difference on foreign policy between the two men didn't even come up: What they have or haven't learned from the war in Iraq.
Romney implied that he had learned something. "We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us," he said. But behind the scenes, his senior foreign policy team is heavy with the same neoconservative ideologues who were behind the 2003 invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. Those include John Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador, and Robert Joseph, a former National Security Council official who included the false claim that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Niger in George W. Bush's 2003 State of the Union address.
Obama alluded to Romney's position on Iraq. "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," he said. "You said we should have gone into Iraq despite the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day."
Romney shot back that Obama himself wanted a new "status of forces agreement" -- and he was correct that the president initially wanted to stay longer in Iraq, past a December 2011 deadline. As late as September 2011, the Obama administration was trying to persuade the Iraqi government to let 10,000 to 30,000 troops stay indefinitely. Ultimately, the Iraqi government refused to renegotiate the agreement it had struck with George W. Bush in 2008.
"What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down," Obama said.
Earlier this month, Romney said the "costly gains made by our troops" in Iraq are now eroding due to Obama's "abrupt withdrawal."
Democrats in the spin room after the debate delighted in all the agreement. "I know that Mitt Romney tried to offer his endorsement of virtually everything President Obama did," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "We accept his endorsement."