Mitt Romney's more attentive supporters may have been surprised to hear him outline a strategy to combat Islamic extremism that sounded awfully like the nation-building increasingly out of favour with Republicans as costly and ineffective. Not only that, he mentioned the widely despised United Nations in the same positive breath.
Romney painted Barack Obama as weak in the Middle East, and accused him of opening the way to a resurgent al-Qaida and other expressions of Islamic extremism from Libya to Mali. Romney even described the election of a Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, in Egypt as part of a "pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region", even though he also said the US works to promote elections.
Romney went on to congratulate Obama on killing Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaida leaders.
"But we can't kill our way out of this mess," he added. "We're going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is certainly not on the run."
Romney elaborated on the theme later in the debate. He spurned invasions and instead advocated a policy of engagement with hallmarks of nation-building, even going so far to helping create civil societies.
"The key that we're going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq; we don't want another Afghanistan. That's not the right course for us," he said.
"The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world. And how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organised by the UN, to look at how we can help the world reject these terrorists."
Romney said the scholars came up with a list of four priorities for foreign countries to combat Islamic extremism, beginning with economic development.
"We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment, and that of our friends, we should coordinate it to make sure that we push back and give them more economic development," he said. "No 2, better education. No 3, gender equality. No 4, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies."
The experience of the US, European countries and other nations involved in trying to construct the rule of law, expand education systems and promote equality as well as economic development in other parts of the world, such as Africa, is complicated, expensive and laced with failure among the successes.
It usually requires an extended financial commitment – not something that will be particularly welcome to Republicans who have their eye on the foreign aid budget for deeper spending cuts.
Immediately after the debate, Congressman Mike Rogers, a Republican hawk, denied that Romney was promoting nation-building. Rogers said the Republican candidate intends to use trade to pressure governments to change.
"He was talking about better engagement. You can't walk away from those relationships completely. We are for commerce, not conflict. What he was trying to say is we need to use American strength to pursue gender equality, which you see deteriorating all across the Middle East today. We show strength through trade agreements, using our economic power to try to bring those nations along into a more moderate place," he said.
And on education and civil society?
"He wasn't talking about building schools," said Rogers.
John Sununu, George Bush Sr's chief of staff, said Romney had identified the causes of the Arab uprisings that had to be addressed if conflict is to be quelled.
"I think he's laying down a set of principles that are important for the world as it deals with the realities of unrest that have been expressed in the Arab Spring. There's a reason people are demonstrating in the streets and they correspond to the points Mitt Romney was making and he's saying those countries have to find a way to deal with it if they want us to help them economically," he said.
But does that mean more aid and direct involvement?
"Romney's smart enough to know it's a different package for different countries," said Sununu.
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image: © Gage Skidmore