Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The 2012 Presidential Foreign Policy Debate: “War is bad and peace is good”

Last night’s foreign policy debate was, for me at least, the highlight of the election season. While domestic issues and the candidates’ positions on them are of course interesting and important, let’s face it: foreign policy is my jam. I was utterly disappointed when the “foreign policy” section of the previous, supposedly split-topic debate that consisted of a single question on the attack on the US consulate in Libya. Finally, I could look forward to a debate not only concerning the field I am most passionate about, but also focusing mainly on the region I know the best. Yet what the debate ended up revealing about both Pres. Obama and Gov. Romney was not their differences on foreign policy, but their almost mind-numbing similarities. While this may not make for the most entertaining debate (the “horses and bayonets” comment aside), it certainly gives me hope that the neo-conservative era of the Bush years is truly over regardless of which party sits in the White House.

A clear choice? Courtesy of the Huffington Post.

The first question fielded by the moderator was, naturally, about Benghazi. Although I certainly think that the attacks on Benghazi are central to the State Department’s security policy going forward, I do not necessarily agree with the amount of attention that has been paid to them during this election. Given that Libya as a whole remains a complex and urgent issue, to focus on the microcosm of the attacks will forward the agendas of those who wish to downgrade our relationship with the new Libyan government. I am all about having friends in a volatile region, and considering there was little the fledgling government could have done to better protect the consulate when our own State Dept. failed to do so, I don’t think we should be discounting Libya as a possible ally just yet.

Gov. Romney raised the usual alarmist bells about “terrorists of some kind” (Al Qaeda?) operating in “ten or twelve countries” including Northern Mali without pointing to how he would deal with such groups while avoiding military involvement abroad. Meanwhile, Pres. Obama insisted that it is “important to step back and think,” a hallmark of his pensive foreign policy over the last four years. Despite the more combative rhetoric employed by Mr. Romney, in substance the two men agreed on future policy: establish better security for our interests abroad, and project of an image of “American strength” to somehow thwart would-be attackers. The claim that such an image can actually do much to protect us in the face of extremists is a bit dubious, but both men agreed that they would try to employ it either way.

Romney hit on his regular talking points, suggesting that Obama had “projected weakness” during a presidency that saw an exponential rise in drone strikes, the death of bin Laden, and US military intervention in Libya. On Libya, Pres. Obama was quick to point out that he “took leadership in organizing an international coalition…at a cost of less than what we spent in two weeks in Iraq” in order to depose Qaddafi. Gov. Romney criticized this reliance on surgical missions such as drone strikes at first, saying that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess"- a statement that I agree with, but later in the debate, he seemed to go back on this point, agreeing with the President’s increase of the use of drone strikes.

On the topic of Syria, the candidates couldn’t find a difference to stand on. In fact, the most aggressive part of this portion came when the candidates tried to convince the world that they love Israel best. Gov. Romney stated he would identify “responsible parties” within the Syrian opposition and magically replace Bashar al-Asad with said parties, all without U.S. military involvement. Pres. Obama said essentially the same thing, and closed by saying “[Gov. Romney] doesn’t have different ideas and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syria leadership.” Pointing out the obvious, neither candidate could find a way to distinguish their policies from that of their challenger.

Romney and Obama then talked about America’s role in the world, which I have more than a few qualms with. He claimed: “the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it, but it is an honor for us to have it.” But we did ask for it, actually. The entire 20th century of American interventionism is a case study in us “asking for it.” Pres. Obama also made a vague patriotic statement about our role in the world: “America remains the world’s one indispensible nation.” American exceptionalism clearly runs deep in both sides of the political spectrum.

Biggest disappointment of the debate: when asked the question of what they would do if Israel bombed Iran, both candidates refused to answer. Romney insisted “let’s not go into hypotheticals like that,” except going into “hypotheticals like that” is the Commander in Chief’s job. The American people deserve to know that if a US ally attacked a sovereign state without coordinating with the U.S., would we go to war to defend Israel in flagrant violation of international law? Would we give Iran the gift of siding with the Israelis and breed an entire generation of Muslims – Arabs and Persians alike – that despises America? These questions will not be answered during the course of this election and yet may pose the most dangerous concrete military threat to the United States. Pres. Obama's sidestepping of the issue did nothing to clarify what the US will do if Israel takes such an extreme step.

A difference in opinion finally came at the tail end of the debate. When asked what poses the biggest future threat to America, Obama said that it would “continue to be terrorist networks,” while Romney seemed to indicate China, although failed to make the allegation outright. According to Romney, “from day one, [he] will label [China] a currency manipulator.” The moderator quickly pointed out that this could, in fact, generate a trade war. Such an extreme action belies the complexity and inherent delicacy of the US-China relationship and would do much to unravel the mutually beneficial ties we have built over the last four decades. It would be naïve, foolish, and hurt the American people more than anyone else in the equation.

The debate was a far cry from a Rumble in the Jungle. The most memorable lines from either candidate were “horses and bayonets” from Obama and “I agree with the President” from Romney. They both were aggressive, but only towards each other. I feel as though I can breathe a little easier knowing that the Republican Party seems to have finally turned away from the disastrous foreign policies of the Bush era. Their domestic conservatism may have increased and swung to the extreme on some issues, but even Romney avoided admitting he would launch a pre-emptive strike on (for instance) Iran. Both men made the requisite vague statements, dumbing down foreign affairs to a level that could be understood by the majority of the American electorate, although I bet more than a few people were Googling Mali. I can only hope that in practice, their policies match the nuanced, complicated reality that is world politics and not the generalizations that sell so much better to their constituents. Otherwise, all we really learned is that both men don’t like war but definitely like peace, and I guess that is a sentiment both conservatives and liberals can take pride in sharing.

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