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This article’s purpose is to give a full analysis on the foreign policy aspects of the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Remember that the idea that someone “won” the debate in terms of an outside observer’s standpoint or even based on a poll is misleading. The only important thing is whether either candidate swayed additional voters to his side.
Since I’m writing this to provide a detailed assessment, I’m not going to try to be short. So for your convenience let me begin by briefly explaining how Romney is so handicapped in dealing with foreign policy:
–He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) name the enemy, revolutionary Islamism.
–He either cannot (or has decided for strategic reasons not to) discuss in sharp terms how Obama has objectively helped this enemy become stronger while weakening America’s allies.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that America faces a long struggle, since this would make voters unhappy and prefer Obama’s promise that he has brought peace.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East.
Given either the terms of the larger debate or the strategic decisions of the Romney campaign (based on an arguably realistic assessment of American voters, or at least the additional votes he needs to win), Romney starts out at a huge disadvantage. He did not overcome this handicap in the presidential debate.
Now to the debate itself.
Romney began with an assessment of the “Arab Spring” as having gone wrong. It brought hope “that there would be a change towards more moderation” but instead there was the bloody Syrian civil war, the terror attack on American personnel in Libya, the takeover of northern Mali by “al-Qaida type individuals”; and a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, alongside Iran’s continuing drive for nuclear weapons. What is to be done? Romney continued:
“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. We’re going to have to put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help the — the world of Islam and other parts of the world, reject this radical violent extremism, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.”
The threat is “a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries” that “presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”
But what is that group? Al-Qaida? And this is a genuine problem that Romney has faced, either because a presidential candidate cannot name the enemy more explicitly or because he’s making a mistake in choosing that strategy. For is the problem al-Qaida—a tiny terrorist organization—or massive revolutionary Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Obama prefers the focus to be on al-Qaida. He ignored all the points Romney had made and focused on what he could claim as accomplishments: that there had been no new September 11; that the war in Iraq was ended; that “al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated;” that the U.S. forces are pulling out of Afghanistan; and that he has rebuilt alliances and united friends against threats.
On Libya he merely repeated his previous statement that once he received news of the killings he directed that Americans there be kept safe, the matter be investigated, and that those responsible be punished. He added that he had provided leadership in overthrowing the Muammar Qadhafi dictatorship without putting in troops and at low cost, making Libyans like Americans.
This certainly would seem to voters to be a record of success, presented in part by not mentioning any of the current problems to which Romney referred. Implicitly, Obama was speaking as if an end of history had been achieved in the region: as if Libya would not be the source of further trouble; the Taliban might take over in Afghanistan; Iran might not gain influence over Iraq; al-Qaida was not still very much alive; and crises in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere continued.
For electoral reasons, Romney does not want to tell the American people that there is a long, hard struggle ahead. So he puts forth a relatively low-cost, pain-free strategy of getting “the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.” Instead of another Iraq or Afghanistan—that is, American military intervention—U.S. strategy should be to go after extremist leaders while helping the “Muslim world.”
How is that to be done? He answers: “More economic development”; “better education”; “gender equality”; and the “rule of law” by helping “these nations create civil societies.” Romney is not going to point out that the problem is the growing rule of [Sharia] law.
Obama responds with a…cheap trick: “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that Al Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not Al Qaida….”
If al-Qaida is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America in the world than the United States has nothing to worry about but occasional terrorist attacks by a relatively weak group that cannot seize and hold power anywhere. In other words, Romney has one hand tied behind his back. Whether this is a necessary strategy for him given the situation or a mistake I will leave to the readers.
Obama also caught Romney’s mistake—which I pointed out at the time—as implying there should still be U.S. troops in Iraq. He also got across the snide, but effective point, “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy.” Obama continued that Romney had opposed a nuclear treaty with Russia and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In other words, the framework imposed on the foreign policy discussion favors Obama. He is saying: You see, I am making these problems go away so the United States doesn’t have to fight. Romney must bring the psychologically unwelcome news that problems aren’t going away.
In the most implicitly funny remark of the night, Obama could even say: “What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.”
So now Romney was on the defensive, not so much because of a lack of skill or of good arguments but because he is trapped in the need to sound optimistic and not promise costs and casualties in comparison to Obama’s “good news” that everything is going great. He does respond that he views Iran as the greatest national security threat, adding, “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”
The real problem is the wearing of rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Middle East.
Romney tries to get across the point—perhaps too detailed for viewers—that Obama failed to get an agreement with Iraq on the status of U.S. forces. Instead, there is a long back and forth about how many troops who wanted to keep in Iraq. Obama’s interruptions prevent Romney didn’t get his point across while Obama repeated the accurate claim that his opponent said there should still be U.S. troops there.
Obama then listed his program as one of counterterrorism, support for Israel, and—a bold falsehood—protection of religious minorities and women. Well, the last point is part of his stated program but he just didn’t do anything to implement it at a time when those groups are facing growing threats. He added helping Middle East countries develop economically but that the United States couldn’t do “nation building” in that region.
Both candidates agreed on what is a major fallacy: that U.S. policy needed to concentrate on economic development of the region. The underlying concept is that by raising living standards extremism will be made to go away. Some Middle Eastern countries have a lot of oil revenue (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and Libya) yet still are mired in extremism, violence, and anti-Americanism.
Others are poor. Regrettable as that poverty is, how is the United States going to help with economic development in a country like Egypt, given its lack of resources, non-productive political culture, and rule by the Muslim Brotherhood? It can only put in money as a form of political bribe or effort to shore up the status quo. For example, the massive sums—unprecedented on a per capita basis–poured into the Palestinian Authority have not brought peace or real prosperity. Still, the fiction of an economic development panacea is maintained.
Next, the debate turned to Syria. Obama provided comforting pabulum about his organizing the “international community” and calling for dictator Bashar al-Assad’s ouster. He added that the United States had provided humanitarian assistance and is “helping the opposition organize,” especially “mobilizing the moderate forces.”
This is comic since in fact U.S. influence has been used to help the radical forces but the mass media has not told voters about that. Obama also stressed the limit of U.S. involvement, including no military entanglement.
So what could Romney answer? That the crisis is terrible but provides an opportunity:
“Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world….It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally, Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us.”
But Obama can say that he wants to remove Assad. Romney then states this that the United States should identify “responsible parties” in Syria, organize them, and bring them to form a government.
Yet, of course, Obama had already done this by creating a Syrian leadership council. What Romney could have pointed out is that this council was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, that Obama helped push for an anti-American leadership. He didn’t.
In fact, he implied that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey wanted American leadership. Of course, the last two are following U.S. leadership, which has not forbidden them from backing the Brotherhood. And the Saudis, because they are against the Brotherhood are supporting the Salafis!
Since Romney focuses on the point about leadership, it is easy for Obama to claim that he has been providing leadership on the issue. His claim is reasonable. The problem is not the lack of leadership but leading in a disastrous direction, the creation of another Egypt or even Gaza Strip.
As Romney correctly said, U.S. objectives should be “to replace Assad and to have in place a new government which is friendly to us,” implying—but not in a way clear to viewers—that arms should be going to moderates not radicals.
Yet here is Romney’s second big dilemma, the first being not naming the threat as revolutionary Islamism and not just al-Qaida. For reasons we all can understand—however we evaluate them—he didn’t want to accuse Obama of helping America’s enemies, that is of strengthening the forces of revolutionary Islamism. Without that element, it was hard for Romney to make a case. He simply falls into what might be considered Obama’s trap: America needs to be a leader, work with its partners, and help organize the opposition. Obama has done that on Syria. That’s not the problem.
Obama then tells an interesting historical analogy on which we should reflect:
“I think that America has to stand with democracy. The notion that we would have tanks run over those young people who were in Tahrir Square that is not the kind of American leadership that John F. Kennedy talked about 50 years ago.”
Kennedy, of course, was the man who faced with demonstrations in South Vietnam covertly organized a coup and installed a pro-U.S. government that was in effect a dictatorship. He didn’t say that since the Communists had so much support they should run the country. Kennedy put the emphasis on national interest, not democracy promotion. Of course, the Vietnam situation did not end well but how many viewers will know that Kennedy did the opposite of what Obama claimed?
Obama then laid out his “red lines” on Egypt: the government must protect Christians, women, the peace treaty with Israel, and cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism. None of that will happen and if Obama is reelected he won’t do anything about it.
With relief, Obama quickly dove back to the economic development solution. Young people want jobs, good schools, and nice housing. And this is what his policy has been helping on by…“organizing entrepreneurship conferences.”
I cannot let his next remark go by without noting the irony:
“One of the challenges over the last decade is we’ve done experiments in nation building in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and we’ve neglected, for example, developing our own economy, our own energy sectors, our own education system. And it’s very hard for us to project leadership around the world when we’re not doing what we need to do [at home]….”
Who has been the president for the last four years, one might ask. But back to the Middle East. The moderator asked Romney if he would have stuck with Egyptian dictator Husni Mubarak. Romney said “no” but could only weakly add that he supported Obama’s policy at the time but “wish we’d have had a better vision of the future.”
Wish? First of all, there was an alternative policy, backed no less by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of working with the military to get rid of Mubarak personally, make some reforms, but to keep the regime in power. But Romney probably doesn’t understand this and he can’t say this, since the current debate doesn’t sit well with supporting a dictatorship.
Second, rather than wishing for better foresight, Romney could have listed the ways in which Obama helped make a Muslim Brotherhood victory more likely. But that lies outside his own strategy. He even added, “When there are elections, people tend to vote for peace.”
This is, then, basic American political culture: democracy and economic development solves problems and that is how the Middle East can be fixed. Politicians will nowadays not publicly contradict that notion. Romney does point out, that Obama has not made America strong at home and has not stood behind having a strong military:
“And if we’re strong in each of those things, American influence will grow. But unfortunately, in nowhere in the world is America’s influence will grow. But unfortunately…nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago.
Finally, well into the debate, Romney gives one example why that’s true, that Obama didn’t support the anti-regime demonstrators in Iran. But he never extended that point to the Arabic-speaking world.
Obama replied that America is stronger than when he became president. First, “We ended the war in Iraq.” Actually the war was won under his predecessor using the “surge” which Obama opposed. On another level the war in Iraq goes on forever. It’s merely the U.S. troops which are gone.
Second, “we were able to refocus our attention on…the terrorist threat” from al-Qaida. But his predecessor did that on September 12, 2001.
Third, the United States is “beginning a transition process in Afghanistan.” Yet that transition might be to a Taliban regime.
Fourth, “Our alliances have never been stronger, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel….” That claim would bring snorts of derision (only in private) from a great many governments, especially in the Middle East. But there is no way for many Americans to know that.
None of my rejoinders are likely to overturn Obama’s ability to claim that we now have peace. (I hesitate to add, in our time.)
The tipoff might be that when Romney speaks of having a stronger military, Obama replied, “We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.” It is his usual stress on the visionary over the actual; his ideological need to rewrite all of the most basic strategic and diplomatic principles.
When Obama said, “I will stand with Israel if they are attacked,” I could not help but think that his policies make it far more likely that Israel will be attacked.
Incidentally, a cute little bit of misdirection came when Obama said, “So that’s how I’ve used my travels, when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” The unwary viewer is left to believe that Obama visited Israel as president.
On the Iran issue, Obama said, “As long as I’m president of the United States Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.” If he serves only one term that promise will be secure. But how is he going to stop Tehran from doing so? One trick here is definitional: If Iran has everything it needs to make nuclear weapons but for the moment doesn’t assemble them than Obama can say he succeeded.
Obama does point to his strong sanctions and to evidence that Iran’s economy is in serious trouble. He concludes that he is offering “Iran a choice.”
They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.
One problem is that Iran may not see itself bound by that choice. The other problem is neither Romney nor anyone else has a solution, certainly not one that is politically palatable for Americans. Obama falsely accused Romney of favoring “premature military action.”
But that is Romney’s difficulty. He can assert that he would provide tougher leadership more likely to intimidate Iran, and many Americans will believe him. Yet there is no alternative policy he can articulate. And so Romney is left to say that he, too, would support Israel; he, too, views “a nuclear-capable Iran” as “unacceptable to America”; and that he, too, wants diplomacy to work. He can make some points about how sanctions can be strengthened around the margins but that isn’t a game-changer for the election.
Romney can (rightly) assert that when Iran’s regime looked at Obama’s administration, “I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” He mentions Obama’s original policy of engaging Iran and of failing to support the demonstrators in Tehran’s streets. Romney’s strongest assertion is that the world is four years closer to a nuclear Iran, but what could he have done or what could he do differently? Romney didn’t make a persuasive case, except for one critical point.
That point was best articulated by Obama:
The central question at this point is going to be: Who is going to be credible to all parties involved? And they can look at my track record, whether it’s Iran sanctions, whether it’s dealing with counterterrorism, whether it’s supporting democracy, whether it’s supporting women’s rights, whether it’s supporting religious minorities.
And they can say that the President of the United States and the United States of America has stood on the right side of history. And that kind of credibility is precisely why we’ve been able to show leadership on a wide range of issues facing the world right now.
Aside from the humorous notion—albeit one accepted by many Americans and promulgated generally by the mass media—that Obama has credibility in the Middle East or that he has protected women and religious minorities–there is something shocking in what he said.
Let us assume that that the Progressive Party had won the 1948 elections and the American president had not covertly interfered in countries like France and Italy to help ensure the Communists didn’t win elections. Let’s assume that the United States had not engaged in other interventions that today are generally reviled. Instead that president might have said that helping a solution in Greece, for example, with a Communist electoral victory would be showing that America was on “the right side of history.”
Instead, U.S. governments, both Democratic and Republican, followed a national interests’ defined policy. They did not assume the “right side of history” meant observing matters of process or letting the other side win in the belief that it would become moderate.
Obama and his supporters are definitely Progressive in the same sense as those who would have lost—indeed, never have fought—the Cold War.
Romney’s main argument is that the United States is worse off in foreign policy terms than it was four years ago:
Look, I look at what’s happening around the world, and I see Iran four years closer to a bomb. I see the Middle East with a rising tide of violence, chaos, tumult. I see jihadists continuing to spread, whether they’re rising or just about the same level, hard to precisely measure [talk about crippling diffidence! –BR], but it’s clear they’re there. They’re very strong.
I see Syria with 30,000 civilians dead, Assad still in power. I see our trade deficit with China…growing larger every year….
So it is silly to argue about who won the debate. What’s important is which vision of the international reality Americans will believe when they cast their ballots.
Visit Rubin Reports.
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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