“Obama and Romney Bristle From Start Over Foreign Policy,” The New York Times reported on the debate in Boca Raton on October 22. But as Chronicles' Foreign Affairs Editor notes, we were treated to a vacuous, choreographed, and scripted conversation instead. President Barack Obama and his challenger Governor Mitt Romney “bristled” over peripheral details without disagreeing on a single issue of substance. Romney looked faintly ridiculous, sitting there with a contrived smile to match Obama’s contrived anger. He was out of points worth making and out of his depth, letting Obama get away with numerous lies and distortions. Compared to his supine challenger, the President looked almost presidential.
The litmus test of the entire show was Benghazi. Romney never went after Obama on the one subject that could (and should) bring this Administration down like a house of cards. Asked about the attack on the night of September 11, he inexplicably waffled about better education and gender equality. In a real debate, Obama’s opponent would blast the President for his team’s gross ineptitude, and—more egregiously—for the subsequent cover-up. In a real debate Obama would be asked if Ambassador Stevens was indeed brokering some heavy weapons shipments to Syria with his jihadist contacts in Benghazi when the deal turned sour and they murdered him. Romney praised Obama’s record instead, saying—incongruously—that “it’s wonderful that Libya seems to be making some progress.” It was like two members of the Soviet Politbureau discussing Hungary in the fall of 1956.
Iran came up a few dozen times, with Obama’s bellicose rhetoric out-Romneying Romney: “As long as I’m president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon… A nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security, and it is a threat to Israel’s national security… We are going to take all options necessary to make sure they don’t have a nuclear weapon.” Romney responded with the inane notion that Ahmedinejad should be indicted under the Genocide Convention for advocating Israel’s destruction. It was surreal. Postmodern American politicians engaging in postmodern discourse.
In a real debate, Obama would be put on the spot: Does “all options” include an all-out war? Air strikes alone, or occupation, partial or total? With what objective, timetable, and end-game? Why is Israel’s national security mentioned in the same breath with that of the United States? What is the calculus of Obama’s perceived costs and benefits in this scenario? If he does not include an all-out war in the said scenario, why make empty threats? If he does, what is the “threat to our national security” exactly? What are, specifically, Iran’s delivery capabilities? How does the threat to America of an Iranian bomb differ from that of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal?
In a real debate, when Obama boasted that during the Arab Spring uprisings “we have stood on the side of democracy,” his opponent would challenge him on two obvious points:
Far from venturing into such tricky issues, when asked about Egypt Romney eccentrically started dwelling on the need for a strong U.S. economy. Perhaps this was wiser than repeating his insane October 8 statement that there was “a longing for American leadership in the Middle East.”
On Syria the only difference was on how to help the rebels bring down the regime. Their statements were carbon-copies of each other. “We are going to do everything we can to make sure that we are helping the opposition,” Obama said, “and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.” “The right course for us, is working through our partners and with our own resources,” Romney replied—meaning Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey under “partners”—“to identify responsible parties within Syria… We do need to make sure that they don’t have arms that get into the—the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.”
The identity of views became grotesque when both men declared that Israel and Turkey—whose mutual relations are at the lowest ebb in history—are our key regional partners. “Everything we’re doing, we’re doing in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel and… coordinating with Turkey,” Obama declared, to which Romney retorted, “We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies, and particularly with — with Israel. But the Saudi’ and the Qatari, and the Turks are all very concerned about this. They’re willing to work with us.” Obama then asserted that we are “making certain that we knew who we were dealing with, that those forces of moderation on the ground were ones that we could work with.” Romney concurred: the key task is “to find responsible parties.” Like in Afghanistan, back in the 1980s, like in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, and in Libya last year.
Both candidates declared that Assad’s days are numbered, but Obama warned sternly that we cannot “simply suggest that, as Governor Romney at times has suggested, that giving heavy weapons [to the Syrian opposition] would lead us to be safer over the long term.” As it happens a victory for Assad’s opponents, being an eminently jihadist victory, would make us less safe over the long term—heavy weapons or no heavy weapons. Mitt Romney is intellectually, experientially and morally unable to grasp this fact. He is worthy of his GOP predecessors over the past 16 years, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
On the question of all questions—America’s role in the world—Romney proudly talked of the achievements of 4th graders in Massachusetts during his governorship. It is beyond bizarre, it is frightening.