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Obama Wins a Failed Foreign Policy Debate

Common Dreams staff

Obama and Romney: both men tried to steer the debate back to the economy. (Photograph: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A debate about foreign policy that frequently digressed into mundane, oft-repeated campaign talking points about domestic issues but again failed to find room to address the global issue of climate change or directly challenge the Obama administration's targeted "kill list," Monday's third and final presidential debate was described as a disaster—with the President its victor—by many progressive observers.

The pundit's scoresheet (and many polls) overwhelming went to Obama, but that seemed an easy threshold after Romney suggested Iran was a landlocked country, that the US Navy was somehow more powerful back in 1917 and generally confirmed to a national audience Obama's quip that Romney's foreign policy would look much like his own... "only louder".

The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, who provided running commentary of the debate, concluded thus:

That was just a wretched debate, with almost no redeeming qualities. It was substance-free, boring, and suffuse with empty platitudes. Bob Scheiffer's questions were even more vapid and predictably shallow than they normally are, and one often forgot that he was even there (which was the most pleasant part of the debate.)

The vast majority of the most consequential foreign policy matters (along with the world's nations) were completely ignored in lieu of their same repetitive slogans on the economy. When they did get near foreign policy, it was to embrace the fundamentals of each other's positions and, at most, bicker on the margin over campaign rhetoric.

Numerous foreign policy analysts, commentators and journalists published lists of foreign policy questions they wanted to hear asked and answered at this debate. Almost none was raised. In sum, it was a perfect microcosm of America's political culture.

"No one could love Israel more, care less about the Palestinians, put more pressure on Iran or be a greater fan of drone attacks or invading Libya," observed Gary Younge after the debate. "Both candidates agreed that America's task was to spread freedom around the world: nobody mentioned Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib or rendition. "Governor, you're saying the same things as us, but you'd say them louder," said Obama. It was a good line. The trouble was it condemned them both."

But, during his twitter coverage of the debate, journalist Jeremy Scahill made note of all that wasn't being discussed:

Following discussion of the ongoing conflict in Syria, Scahill announced:

Regarding Romney's strategy to embrace much of Obama's foreign policy approach to places like Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran:

But, as The New Yorker's Amy Davidson points out, "it’s not quite right to say that Romney mimicked Obama." She continues:

He didn’t mirror the President’s program so much as counter it with something blank and smudgy, shoved at the world with contempt. He was unapologetic about pushing the idea of “what I have called an apology tour”—another false notion. Romney also dismissed the very idea that Benjamin Netanyahu might ever take military action without having a serious talk with him first—a comment that is both shallow and dangerously incautious. The challenge with Iran, Romney said, was that its leaders looked at Obama and “saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” The quality of that strength was vague, though. It seemed to involve looking good and buying ships.

Charles P. Pierce, writing for Esquire, says that Romney's "most spectacular reversal" was in regards to  Afghanistan, "when Romney appeared to commit himself to the same 2014 withdrawal date over which he has been belaboring the president in practically every speech since he left for Iowa a year ago."

Pierce said the takeaway of the evening's event was that Romney's clear attempt to jettison so many previous foreign policy positions in a single night leaves clear evidence that "sooner or later, he will sell your ass out to the highest bidder and walk away whistling in the general direction of anything to which he feels entitled. In this case, that would be the leadership of the Free World."

Pierce's conclusion matched Greenwald's in that he derided the quality of the debate's substance over all else and found meaning in what was not said as much as what was. Though he gave Obame the debate victory—taking the time to say "no nation in its right mind that would put its foreign policy in the hands of the Willard [Mitt] Romney"—the ultimate scorecard, he suggested, should be marked a failure for current US foreign policy overall:

A discussion of foreign policy that did not mention climate change. (Four debates and nary a mention. Somebody else is going to have to tell the polar bears.) A discussion of foreign policy that mentioned teacher's unions exactly as many times — once — as it mentioned the Palestinians, and I am not making that statistic up. A discussion of foreign policy that did not mention hunger, or thirst, or epidemic disease, but spent better than ten minutes on The Fking Deficit. (Here Romney cited in defense of his position that noted political economist, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) A discussion of foreign policy that was all about threats, real and imagined, and wars, real or speculative, and weapons, and how many of them we should build in order to feel safe in this dangerous world. (Romney actually argued that we should go back to the "two-war" strategy that we followed throughout the Cold War. Against whom in god's name does he think we'll be fighting the second war?)

The rough consensus on foreign policy, to which Willard Romney spent most of the evening appealing, is a truncated, dismal thing, a grim march through a universe of bad options and worse choices. "Harvey Cox said once that not to decide is to decide," former senator Bob Graham said after it was over. "The only option not worth taking is the one where we do nothing."

Unfortunately for Graham's theory, there is no "we" in these questions. There was no "we" in the final presidential debate this year. In no area have we as a self-governing nation so abandoned our obligations as we have on foreign policy. In no area are we so intellectually subservient to expertise, and to the Great Man Theory of how things should be run. In no area are we so clearly governed, rather than governing ourselves. The president, at least, occasionally seems to be aware not only that this is true, but also that it puts the whole experiment of self-government in mortal peril, just as the Founders knew it would when they lodged the war powers in the Congress, which has spent the last 225 years giving them back, in one way or another, to the Executive...

Greenwald, in turn, puts much of the onus for a failed foreign policy debate—both on Monday night and perennially—on a media system that plays along willingly in the charade forged by the nation's ruling elite:

A primary reason this debate is so awful is because DC media people like Bob Scheiffer have zero interest in challenging any policy that is embraced by both parties, and since most foreign policies are embraced by both parties, he has no interest in challenging most of the issues that are relevant: drones, sanctions, Israel, etc.

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