10/26/2012 04:31 pm ET Updated Dec 26, 2012

Two Year Struggle Staggers to Its End

Today's 'Id al-Adha holiday--the "festival of the sacrifice"-- is perhaps the most dangerous day in the Muslim world to be a lamb. The Chinese translate it as "festival of livestock slaughter," and it is observed with ritual feasts on freshly slaughtered meat.

In Syria, where it is people who have been slaughtered in an ever more ferocious struggle for power, a fragile holiday respite negotiated by United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi appears largely to be succeeding, at least for the moment, in substituting lambs instead of civilians for sacrifice.

Meanwhile the United States is observing a decidedly non-festive race to the electoral finish line in another ferocious struggle for power, though one in which it is not people who are the casualties, but truth. The mendacity in the presidential campaign's final weeks was particularly on display this week at the final presidential debate, on foreign policy--and with the furor surrounding former secretary of state Colin Powell's endorsement of President Barack Obama.

Syria, curiously, was the one situation about which the presidential candidates did not misrepresent their positions. Both candidates seemed to agree that the United States should seek the overthrow of president Bashar al-Assad's government.

Challenger Mitt Romney, however, called for more muscular action that Obama sees as risky on behalf of Syrian insurgents: "I want to make sure they get armed and they have the arms remove Assad." He derided Obama's support for United Nations efforts to end the fighting and suggested coordinating arms deliveries with the Israelis.

Moreover, the former governor detailed his ambitious goals: "Our objectives are to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us." Ideally, he added, it would be "a responsible government, if possible"--but this was optional. Being "friendly" to Washington was the essential goal.

Romney does not seem to connect Washington's putting friendly governments in place with the distemper toward America around the Muslim world. His embrace of Arab scholars' calls for domestic reform in their countries is all well and good--former President George W. Bush liked to invoke the U.N. Arab Development Report too--but it misses the reason why far-away America, rather than Catholic Italy or liberal Sweden nearby, stirs Muslim publics' antipathy and fanatical jihadists' ire.

At least on Syria, the Romney at Monday's debate took the same positions he has been advocating over the course of his campaign. On other issues, he wore a Halloween disguise that can only have been donned to con the 70 million Americans watching the debate.

That is not to say that Obama rushed to volunteer the whole truth on every issue. Romney was quick to attack the gray area in the president's boast of achieving a total withdrawal from Bush's war in Iraq, pointing to the administration's effort to secure a status-of-forces agreement to keep a reduced contingent in Iraq, which the Iraqis took delight in scuttling.

But it is Romney who went off the rails. Like many others, I have closely followed the candidates' foreign policy positions for over a year--including Romney's first foreign-policy address at the Citadel military academy, the Republican primary debates, and his and Obama's dueling speeches this summer before the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Alas, the latest model Romney off the campaign assembly line on display at the October 22 debate would, in his father's old business, be liable to prosecution for consumer fraud.

On Afghanistan, on which his vice-presidential candidate had forcefully asserted the Romney position just ten days earlier, the former governor simply dropped all his long-time caveats about heeding U.S. generals, keeping the Taliban from power, and barring negotiations with them. Till November 6, there's no daylight between him and Obama on the Afghan war; the Kabul government will just have to sink or swim.

On Iraq, Romney denied calling for keeping U.S. troops there to help ensure a friendly government in Baghdad. (An Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker acidly observed afterward, "If the Republicans were in power, they would not have left.")

On Iran, the former governor reaffirmed his "red line" for the confrontation over its nuclear progra--the same as hard-line Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu's: "a nuclear Iran, a nuclear-capable Iran, is unacceptable to America." But the military saber that he has frequently rattled toward Tehran throughout the campaign he kept tightly in its scabbard.

Connoisseurs of political chutzpah took particular delight in Romney's attack on Obama for failing to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. It followed by weeks the release of his famously frank conversation with wealthy donors in Boca Raton. "I look at the Palestinians not wanting to see peace anyway," he told his contributors then, so "this is going to remain an unsolved problem."

The game, it seems, was to re-cast Romney's hawkish image in front of the one large voter audience that would ever hear him on foreign policy. A top neoconservative advisor, Dan Senor, told his Twitter followers that the campaign sought to follow Ronald Reagan's debate strategy in 1980: deflect concerns about the candidate's foreign-policy belligerence by protestations of peace ("I believe with all my heart that our first priority must be world peace," he quoted Reagan saying at that debate).

Bush's first secretary of state and Reagan's last national security advisor, Colin Powell, was not deceived. He had plenty of experience with the neoconservatives who dragged the country into war in Iraq, and he sees the same crew surrounding Romney. In endorsing Obama Thursday, he faulted "very, very strong neo-conservative views that are presented by the governor"--views muffled during the mass-audience debates. By contrast, Obama did, he said, "get us out of one war, start to get us out of a second war and did not get us into any new wars."

Conservatives dismissed Powell's endorsement as purely race solidarity, but the question of looming "new wars" is an urgent one. We know America's two-year struggle for power is near its end, but are not so sure about Syria's. The uncertain 'Id al-Adha truce, coming amidst stalemate and slaughter, may yet be a step back from the abyss.

It wouldn't have a chance if we were knee-deep in fueling the war.