I thought President Obama won. He got off more, and better, zingers. Not sure that it matters; the debate was so lost in fantasy-land, it served more as a deconstruction of foreign policy rhetoric than a consequential discussion of important issues. To wit: this gem from Romney.
“My strategy is very clear: to go after the bad guys.”
Yep, that’s where we are nowadays. If the actual conduct of foreign policy is like a John Le Carre movie, this debate was Taken 2.
The third Presidential debate took place Monday night; I’m watching it now, Wednesday morning. So my analysis here is hardly fresh-baked, straight from the oven; it’s more like something off the day-old rack. But my gosh, it’s dispiriting.
I’m going to focus on Romney a bit, because he’s the one at a presumed disadvantage in a debate on foreign policy. That’s the conventional wisdom: Romney’s good on the economy, inexperienced on foreign policy. So. Early on, Romney was talking about what we need to do in the world of Islam. “Key to what we have to pursue,” he said, “is get the Islamic world to reject extremism on it’s own. We don’t want another Iraq” (a war he consistently supported, but never mind). He laid out a program: “we need to go after the leaders of these anti-American groups, these jihadists.” (In other words, anti-American=terrorist). He then cited “Islamic scholars” who laid out this program.
1) More economic development. (Fine, I agree, unemployment is a huge issue in the Middle East; sustainable economic development would be great. Could also point out that Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the UAE–they’re all swimming in oil. These are not impoverished nations. They’re cursed with wealth.)
2) Better education. (Great. Fine. So what, we’re going to export school teachers? Iran is a very educated country.)
3) Gender equality. (Awesome! Yes, it would be great if the world of Islam embraced gender equality. I’m all for it. How exactly does America get them to do that?)
4) Rule of law. “We have to help these nations create civil societies”. (No disagreement there. How exactly do we do anything of that.”
But, Romney continued, “what we’ve seen instead is this tumult, this rising tide of chaos.”
Well, yeah. What we’ve actually seen is democracy. We’ve seen people reject their dictators, their secret police and state-controlled media and oppression, and demand something better. And then they’ve voted, and sometimes have voted for people we Americans would rather they hadn’t voted for.
Here’s what President Obama really can’t say in a debate, though. He can’t say ‘yeah, and that’s all good. It’s called self-determination, and it’s a good thing.’ It’s a debate; it’s supposed to exist in a fantasy world, governed by a magical President who can do anything, anywhere.
So how did President Obama respond to this seemingly-coherent-but-actually-ludicrous four point list of really nice outcomes we sure would like to see happen. With snark. He quoted Romney’s comment about how Russia is our greatest geo-political threat, and then commented “The 1980’s are calling and they’d like their foreign policy back.” Very clever soundbite, nicely played, sir! “You want the social policies of the ’50s, and the economic policies of the ’20s” Yes! He’s not up to date! Well done!
So, okay, if you’re a conservative hearing that exchange, you could well think to yourself, ‘Governor Romney had this solid four point plan, shows a mastery of foreign policy, and all Obama can do is make some joke about a comment Romney made a month ago.’ Win for Romney, on substance. If you’re a liberal, you could think, ‘Romney’s some kind of neo-colonialist, and Obama smacked him down for it.’ Win for Obama, on soundbite cleverness. What has not happened, though, is any kind of illuminating conversation on foreign policy.
When they both talked about Syria, and about Bashar al-Hassad, the dictator there, who continues to cling desperately to power there, I thought both men did well, largely because they don’t basically disagree. Hassad is a thug, on his way out; we also have no dog in that fight, and no legitimate reason to intervene militarily. Since they basically agree on Syria, they were free to talk sensibly.
But that was also part of the problem; the two men don’t actually disagree all that much on foreign policy. Their differences are more a matter of style than substance; Romney, because he’s a conservative, his rhetoric tends to be more belligerent than the President’s. They do disagree on the economy, and so Romney kept swerving, turning a question about the Middle East into an answer about balancing the budget.
And when the budget talk came around to military budgets, the President spanked Romney. The ‘horses and bayonets’ line became a huge Twitter meme, and should have; it was first-class, grade-A snark. And in fact, it’s an area where Romney is vulnerable; I have no idea why he wants to increase military spending, but the President is right; no such budget increases are even being requested by the joint chiefs.
I actually found the conversation about Iran kind of comical. They kept topping each other, about how much neither of them want Iran to have nuclear weapons. ‘We should increase sanctions on Iran, we should indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for war crimes, we should turn their diplomats into pariahs.’ We should require all the men in Iran to wear comically large shoes. Oh, yeah, well, we should also make them wear propeller beanies. Oh, yeah, well, we should make them play ONLY old school video games. Q-Bert, Asteroid, Space Invaders. That’ll show ’em.
Okay, so here’s a country that absolutely should not have nuclear weapons. Pakistan. Pakistan is a politically unstable country, with a strong Taliban presence, an ostensible ally in the war on terror, and a country that has hated, and continues to hate a close ally, India, with whom they have been in conflict, at times armed conflict, for decades. Plus Pakistan is really angry at America, because we violated their national sovereignty by sending Navy Seals in to kill Osama bin Laden, who was living openly a five minute jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point. And we’re not happy with Pakistan either, in part because Osama bin Laden was living openly a five minute jog from Pakistan’s version of West Point. Plus, they’re not wild about our unmanned drones hitting terrorist targets, with inevitable civilian casualties: collateral damage. Pakistan is very high on the list of nations that really, truly, should not have nuclear weapons.
But Pakistan has nukes. So does India. North Korea has carried out nuclear tests. Is that desirable? Of course not. But here’s the United States nuclear policy regarding the rest of the world. It’s in three parts:
1) We can have nuclear weapons, as many as we want.
2) But you can’t.
3) Neener neener neener.
And countries like Iran, with their history and their culture, can perhaps be forgiven for finding that attitude annoying. Who knows who even runs Iran; it’s certainly not Ahmadinejad. We don’t know what Iran’s plans are regarding nukes; they appear to be developing them. Is it hopelessly naive to suggest that it’s not really our business? Or that preventing it may not be all that easy? Might I gently suggest that no one needs ’em, that we should maybe get rid of ours too, while we’re at it?
Okay, so, but: Here’s the sequence that really drove me insane. It had to do with Governor Romney’s favorite criticism of the President; that he started his Presidency by going on an ‘apology tour.’ The President ‘apologized’ for America, presumably, showing weakness instead of strength. And strength is good, weakness bad: fine.
But here’s the line: “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.”
Are you freaking kidding me?
I suppose it’s barely possible to defend Governor Romney on the grounds that he’s describing is some kind of Platonic ideal for a foreign policy that we have never actually had, but that he would like to implement. But would he genuinely like to suggest that the United States did not depose Mohammed Mossedegh in Iran, that we did not prop up the Shah for twenty years, that we did not turn a blind eye to the murder and torture of his secret police, that we did not arm him? Is he genuinely suggesting that Hosni Mubarek was not an American client in Egypt, that Saddam Hussein was not a CIA asset, that we didn’t sell him the weapons he turned on his own people? Is the Governor genuinely not aware that we propped up Sukarno Suharto in Indonesia for thirty years, or Augusto Pinochet in Chile, or Idi Amin in Uganda? That’s been our foreign policy post WWII; to prop up dictators. That’s who we are. Not who we’d like to be, but who we’ve actually been.
Should America project strength internationally? I guess. We spend more money on our armed forces than the next ten countries combined, and we have military bases basically everywhere, so, yeah, we’re projecting American strength abroad. But to suggest that American foreign policy has historically been about ‘freedom’ isn’t just nonsense, it’s dangerous nonsense.
Now, I suppose that a conservative watching this exchange might well conclude that Governor Romney did well, that he stood up for America. I suppose that a liberal watching it might think the President did well. But what neither side is likely to acknowledge is that the entire exchange is completely and utterly preposterous. It reminded me of Metallica’s Enter Sandman: “take my hand, we’re off to never never land.”
And so the debates are concluded. And they were never about policy, of course; debates are about presentation, and essentially irrelevant to the hard task of governing. And this one was particularly devoid of substance. Depressing. The world’s a dangerous place. We should maybe take it seriously.