Our View: Clear choice

Posted: October 24, 2012

In his seminal tome “The Art of War,” the Chinese ancient Sun Tzu wrote, “All warfare is based on deception . . . He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.”

We pondered the wary ruminations of Sun Tzu when examining why Mitt Romney, after moderator Bob Schieffer laid the issue of Benghazi on the table at the start of the third presidential debate, eschewed the frontal assault, a tactic that left many viewers amazed and more than a few conservatives frothing.

There was, it seems, method to Mr. Romney’s madness — or, rather, lack thereof — and it all harks back to Sun Tzu. By not committing, by not attacking, the GOP nominee avoided a trap — in this case, President Obama’s presumed eagerness to accuse him of “politicizing” a tragedy and, overall, of being some sort of war-monger. His caginess set the tone, and early on, for a debate that, more so than the previous two, resembled a strategic and tactical game of cat and mouse.

And by their demeanor and body language were the identities of these adversaries known: the incumbent forever coiled, ready to rhetorically pounce, and increasingly indignant — snarky, condescending, and churlish also come to mind — and the challenger poised, serene, measured — and knowledgeable.

In truth, and to abandon the predator-and-prey analogy for a moment, it was almost as if the two men had reversed roles Monday night, Mr. Obama’s countenance being more that of a challenger while Mr. Romney . . . Well, let us simply say he looked presidential while the president merely looked petulant.

This is not to say Mr. Romney abandoned attack mode totally. He simply picked his spots with care and often obliquely, out of the blue, much as Sun Tzu would have advised, and did so with devastating results.

Among the lightning bolts:

 Mr. Romney hammered the president for his “apology tour” to the Middle East during which Mr. Obama told foreign leaders the United States had been “dismissive . . . derisive” — and dictatorial.

 Mr. Romney chided the president for his silence during Iran’s Green Revolution at the moment dissidents were seeking a word of encouragement.

 And he said he would never, as Mr. Obama did, deploy the possible fruits of re-election — i.e., “flexibility” — to curry favor with Russia.

So, while others may have seen too much agreement on, say, Syria and Afghanistan — oh, if only Mr. Romney had cited that New York Times article about arms dispatched to Syrian rebels falling into the wrong hands — what we saw was Mr. Obama playing on the challenger’s end of the field on such issues as American exceptionalism (e.g., we are the world’s “indispensable nation”) and Israel.

Finally, much as we had hoped and anticipated, Mr. Romney successfully turned this foreign-policy debate back to the economy — not as a Johnny One-Note, but as a matter of respecting his audience.

Americans are not doltish. They know this nation cannot be a beacon of freedom, hope, and opportunity unless we are economically strong. American influence — nay, our very “exceptionalism” — is predicated on economic vitality. People get that.

Thus, there was a bigness, an appreciation of the Big Picture, to Mr. Romney’s performance — and message. So much so that, by comparison, the president looked small, reduced as he was to jabbing, sniping, and carping. For instance, his little lecture on “bayonets and horses” was unbecoming the office he holds.

Tartly snappy as this rhetorical legerdemain may have seemed, Mr. Obama offered no real answers to the serious problems raised by his rival, nor any glimpse of what the future Big Picture might hold. As such, this battlefield, seized in the first debate, remains in Mr. Romney’s hands.