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Juliette Kayyem

Foreign policy and the parental perspective

President Obama and Mitt Romney at Tuesday’s debate in Hempstead, N.Y.

Win McNamee/REUTERS

President Obama and Mitt Romney at Tuesday’s debate in Hempstead, N.Y.

With a single misstatement at Tuesday night’s debate, Governor Romney succeeded where the Obama administration hadn’t: He negated the political consequences of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, crushing them under the weight of their own artificiality.

Romney kept insisting that President Obama did not refer to the murder of four Americans as “terrorism” in his initial response. In fact, Obama referred to them as “acts of terrorism,” in his first statement, and called the attack an “act of terror” the next day. After the debate, Republicans were in the unenviable position of arguing the semantic differences between “acts of terrorism” and “terrorists.” That segment of the debate — Romney’s insistence that Obama hadn’t called the attacks terrorism and moderator Candy Crowley’s “yes, he actually did” retort — was replayed over and over again.

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It wasn’t just good theater. In that brief moment, a real distinction between the candidates on world affairs became clear: Romney believes in the war-on-terror model of foreign policy, in which events get pasted into a larger narrative of fighting terrorism — the “Bush doctrine” applied to Libya. Obama believes in a foreign policy that deals with each situation individually, as a challenge to be answered. That’s why calling the attack “terrorism” was a crucial threshold for Romney, but simply a descriptive phrase for Obama.

Put another way, if Mitt Romney and Barack Obama were mothers, and the rest of the world were their children, then Romney would be a “tiger mom” and Obama would be a “French” one.

“Tiger moms,” made famous by author Amy Chua, believe in a doctrinal approach to parenting: Exceptionalism is the norm and any faltering or less-than-superior effort should be met with punishment. It is not about tactics or facts or even the child’s desires; it is about control and the parent’s duty to apply it. In the end, the argument goes, children will be more successful.

“French moms,” made famous in a book by Pamela Druckerman, view each day as a series of situation-based responses and tactical decisions, interrupted by chocolate croissants. Children should be taught, cajoled, pressed, punished or simply ignored based on the circumstances at hand; each moment is akin to a battle in which parents measure the need for victory against the possibility of defeat and plan accordingly.

For months, Republican “tigers” have faltered in getting any traction against Obama’s “French” foreign policy. Their complaints against Obama’s positions on Iran or Syria were countered with a pragmatic retort: Then, what would you do differently? When the only reigning Obama doctrine is an assessment of each situation as a case of first impression, his opponents are forced, against their will, to debate on tactical terrain.

And once that terrain was set, the only way Romney could distinguish himself was by alluding to potential counter-tactics: bombing Iran, keeping more troops in Afghanistan, or becoming more active in Syria. Such alternative positions were never explicitly promised because, as Romney surely knows, American voters long ago grew tired of such dramatic interventions.

The Benghazi crisis was, at last, a major opportunity to win on Obama’s terrain. Here, the administration seemed to stumble on the facts, flail on the tactics. An American ambassador had been killed. Initial intelligence reports had been erroneous. Requests for more security from the team in Libya to the State Department had been ignored. The administration’s story just kept changing. Obama’s seeming passivity, and his inability to control the world, had finally been exposed for what they were in “tiger mom” eyes: dangerous.

With the Benghazi story, Romney was getting traction against Obama. For a brief moment, Romney could actually go after Obama on the evidence.

But Romney learned, swiftly and publicly, that the key to being a successful “French mom” is a firm grasp of the details, however mundane or semantic. There is no ideological doctrine, just one guiding principle: Get the facts right.

Juliette Kayyem is a Globe columnist and former assistant secretary of homeland security in the Obama administration. She can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and on Twitter @juliettekayyem
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