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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.”
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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