Foreign Policy – The “Me Too” Debate: What Really Matters?

This is not a blog on who “won” the third presidential debate but rather a look on whether the policies and actions that were articulated in the debate reflected reality.

Photo belongs to NBC Politics

Would they work to make the world safer and prosperous? Does it truly serve our best interests and that of a peaceful world? The key to this debate is to see which leader reflected the ability to understand the complexity of the global arena and just what tools are most effective to utilize and shape a better world for us all.

One of the remarkable elements of this “debate” was the degree to which Gov. Romney did a channeling of President Obama’s own foreign policy lines and actions. It seemed as if he had no new or better ideas other than that he would be “stronger.”

It was in some ways an almost “surreal” experience to see someone who puts himself forth to be president and commander-in-chief to simply repeat the same polices of the man he wishes to replace as if it were different than those who has had four years of experience and many foreign policy successes with of course as well as his fair measure of frustrations.

Romney showed no depth of understanding except to say we needed a “strategy” —- after being accused for many months, even by some of his own supporters, of not having one himself.  Romney, not presenting any of his own, has for months articulated an image of making America a more aggressive and indeed belligerent nation (remember Bush?) rather than an engaged and constructive power that can inspire others to follow and be assured of our fundamental judgment.

Indeed, as any follower of foreign policy issues knows, Obama has been developing and putting in place extensive strategies and long-term policy determinations throughout his four years in office.   What was most disappointing is that Romney could not really articulate an alternative “strategy” that was any different than our existing one.

The first debate item was the Middle East. It was here that my “surreal” and “confusion” started since he tracked Obama’s policies and actions, yet, still criticized the president for his leadership and thought that al-Qaida was on the rise, citing first Mali and then correcting himself and saying “the northern part of Mali.” Romney also seemed to imply that the Muslim Brotherhood was an equal danger. Romney later noted that Egypt still respected the treaty with Israel and later spoke of helping that nation with assistance.

On the Israeli-Palestinian question, Obama made clear his support of Israel (as did Romney) but the question to just when America might make war in defense of Israel was kept a bit, rightly, cloudy. You don’t telegraph your action and don’t put yourself in a box you later will regret. Assuming it had not been attacked first, the question, “Would you go to war with Israel if it attacked Iran?” was asked. This was rightly avoided by both but Obama made clear again that Iran would not be permitted to have a nuclear weapon while Romney continued his argument of “weapons capability.”   

The other surreal moment is when Romney remarked, “But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.” This from the man who previously had seemed to think that our military was just about the only tool we needed to assert our leadership and solve the world’s problems.

He later in the debate went on with a very foolish remark about not cutting our military. We have to assume his thinking was that it was not enough to have a military that is equal to the next 10 nations combined on this earth (including many of our key allies like Britain and France). He later supported the use of drones, one tool of warfare that Obama has used extensively to take out al-Qaeda leadership in place of putting our troops on the ground.

Inexplicitly, Romney later took on the question of building a larger fleet of ships. As if this was some kind of magic number — except it pays back the huge money he has gotten from his financial backers from the military-industrial sector – who have never seen a weapons system they did not want to build and get gigantic profits from. Romney called for added ships, he said:

“Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285. We’re headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy.

While Romney paid his debt to his backers in making this phantasmal assertion of expenditure for useless weapon systems, but he paid a price when Obama mocked this assertion and noted:

“But I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.  And so the question is not a game of Battleship where we’re counting ships. It’s — it’s what are our capabilities.”

That may have been one of the most devastating moments of the debate as it showed how little depth Romney had in understanding modern weapon systems and modern power projection capabilities.  In my eye, he showed his dependence on his neo-con advisors who got us into Iraq and tried keeping us there along with his military-industrial money handlers. Most importantly, he showed his own personal inability to assess the comparative advantages our military has over any other power on earth.

He was trying to create a “straw man” and magnify it to make a misguided point, much along the lines of his maladroit effort to use the tragic death of our people in Libya to make a partisan political point wrongly against Obama. This was the act of a shallow and desperate man rather than someone worthy of being president and making decisions that impact the very lives of millions at home and billions abroad.

On terrorism, Romney sort to portray that it was on the ascendancy when in reality it is largely in retreat, especially in the ability to have a true global reach or for that matter to dominate the Arab world. Obama made the key point here when he said,

“Well, my first job as commander in chief, Bob, is to keep the American people safe, and that’s what we’ve done over the last four years. We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11. And as a consequence, al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated. In addition, we’re now able to transition out of Afghanistan in a responsible way, making sure that Afghans take responsibility for their own security, and that allows us also to rebuild alliances and make friends around the world to combat future threats.”

Obama had some opportunities to make some points in rebuttal of his own and did not sometimes get the chance to do so. One unfortunate element of the show was that Romney, with his canned repeated talking points, often overran his time and spoke for much longer than Obama did or was permitted. In these cases some key rebuttals of Romney’s distortions were not corrected. This was most evident in Romney’s repeated talk about a trillion dollar cut in military, his effort to talk about his “love of teachers” (remember what he said about teachers and civil servants’ unions in Wisconsin?), and on many of his domestic criticisms and his own budget proposals. He did not give, again, anyone an idea of what he would cut and mislead on taxing the rich.

Obama lead on national security issues, both in substance and in demeanor. It was unfortunate that the discussion of our policies and issues with both China and Russia did not get into any depth given the diversion to domestic policies. But in my view the format provided a better context to argue the issues and confront each other.  So yes, Obama won hands down, but it was child’s play given the canned nature and distorted statements of Romney’s memorized talking points.     

In conclusion, some differences were aired but the outcome seemed more enlightening on how each addressed the difficult topics covered than in its depth. Perhaps that must be expected given the nature of the constraints of the program and problems of being fully frank with the voters by all sides with the danger of being caught in a box later. What was not discussed fully by either side, however, were key future challenges and our strategies on issues such as climate change (except Obama still gave emphasis to clean energy), nuclear proliferation risks, or North Korea.

But one plus was that the issues were put on the agenda and some information and positions were set forth; which in a democracy is a plus.  See our text of the debate on our blog.


Your comments are welcomed!

One thought on “Foreign Policy – The “Me Too” Debate: What Really Matters?

  1. Frank Hodsoll October 31, 2012 / 12:42 PM

    I agree that Romney repeated many of Obama’s policies, and that this agreement had not always been so. On the other hand, many (not all) of Obama’s policies have made sense. Therefore, I am glad that there is a measure of agreement between the two candidates for the Presidency. The distinction between Iran’s nuclear capability and its having nuclear weapons is arguable, as, in my view, is whether we shall have to learn how to live with a nuclear weapons Iran.

    On the other hand, I am not sure Romney has ever indicated that our military “was just about the only tool we needed to assert our leadership and solve the world’s problems.” Romney shouldn’t have related our need for naval ships to 1916; he could have related it to DOD’s Quadrennial Review. There is a need for naval modernization (including a few more ships), but 1916 is irrelevant.

    That said, the CNN and other numbers show that Obama spoke slightly longer than Romney in all three debates. In my view, after the first Debate, it was the President who was more aggressive, interrupting Romney, etc. Both candidates had memorized their Talking Points. It would be nice to get away from the consultants and have the candidates speak what was on their minds.

    That said again, I completely agree that major issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation, or North Korea were not dealt with at all.

    Good piece, Harry. Many thanks for keeping up the good fight.

    Frank Hodsoll

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