In the first exchange of the presidential election season over foreign policy issues, the neocons — in the person of GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan — got creamed. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that Ryan got creamed by Joe Biden — who serves in an administration that is pursuing each and every one of the neocons’ policy goals, and doing a much better job of it than George W. Bush ever did.
Ah, but these days we must take our pleasures where we find them, and who can deny it was fun watching the amateurish Ryan stammer as he tried to remember the talking points the neocons had drilled him on. One fully expected his ears to start fluttering and helicopter him outta there. Martha Raddatz, a respected reporter who specializes in the Middle East, moderated and her first question was about Libya: wasn’t this a “massive intelligence failure” on the part of the administration?
If you’ll recall, the administration — in the person of UN ambassador Susan Rice — first came out with a statement attributing the Benghazi attack to a protest over the “Innocence” video that got out of hand. And my regular readers will further recall that I said the administration would soon backtrack on this, which they did. And you’ll note Biden didn’t say the attack was pre-planned: he just brushed the question aside, went on the offensive against Romney — whose premature public statement on Benghazi was patently unpresidential — and signaled his strategy with a very effective concluding statement: “The last thing we need is another war.”
That’s because both Romney and Ryan believe the first thing we need is another war, despite Ryan’s protestations at the debate. In his answer to Biden, Ryan sighed and whined like an undergraduate arguing with his professor over a failed grade: well sure “we agreed with the Obama administration” on getting out of Iraq, except … they didn’t. Because, you see, Washington “failed to get a Status of Forces agreement.”
Is Ryan suggesting we should have somehow forced the Iraqis to sign the agreement? It’s not clear, nor is it clear what the differences are on Afghanistan, where, Ryan averred, “we agree with a 2014 transition” — except, we really don’t, because, you see, “we also want to … make sure that we’re not projecting weakness abroad, and that’s what’s happening here.”
Translation: You need a microscope to discover the differences between the two tickets on these issues.
Asked about how appropriate it was for Governor Romney to accuse the President of “weakness” and making “apologies,” as Raddatz put it, “right in the middle of the crisis,” Ryan evaded the question, denounced the lack of security at the Benghazi consulate, said we should have spoken out in support of Iran’s “Green Revolution,” accused the administration of describing Bashar al-Assad as a “reformer,” and decried “devastating defense cuts.” The doe-eyed Republican pin-up boy probably has no idea the leaders of Iran’s “Green Revolution” have the same position on the nuclear issue as the ayatollahs: his neocon handlers probably thought this tidbit might complicate the narrative unnecessarily.
Biden’s answer was nearly an early knockout blow, as he informed the audience Ryan had voted to cut $300 million from the embassy security budget — “so much for the embassy security piece,” he said with a smile. I almost felt sorry for Ryan: he looked like a student being lectured by his professor on the subject of why one always ought to do one’s homework.
And he obviously didn’t do his homework, falsely accusing the administration of not sanctioning Iran’s central bank: Biden went after him on that one, bragging about how these are the “harshest” sanctions against Iran — or any country — ever. Desperate to score points, Ryan even cited the alleged “terrorist attack” against the Saudi ambassador supposedly planned by a used car salesman in the US in conjunction with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Of course, the fact that the accused man, one Mansoor Arbabsiar, has been diagnosed with a mental illness may cause serious people to take the charges less … seriously. There was one Bizarro World moment when Ryan’s confusion was particularly apparent as he demanded that the “military option” against Iran be put “on the table” even as he averred that “the key is to do this peacefully.”
Here we come to the crux of the matter: Romney-Ryan say the Obama administration is projecting “weakness,” that they are letting the Iranians get away with assembling the components of a nuclear weapon, and that they aren’t doing enough to stop it. So what do they want? Biden went for the jugular:
“When Governor Romney’s asked about it, he said, we got to keep these sanctions. When they said, well, you’re talking about doing more, what are you — are you — you’re going to go to war? Is that you want to do now?”
“We want to prevent war!” said Ryan, but it wasn’t very convincing: his mouth spoke peace, but his eyes told a different story. In that moment he looked like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
Biden performed a real public service as he patiently explained that the mere possession of “fissile material” does not equal having a bomb: although he felt obligated to include the Israelis when describing the official assessment of how far along the Iranians are in the process, the reality is that our own intelligence community has consistently said the Iranians gave up their nuclear weapons program in 2003, and they have yet to revise that opinion (in spite of lots of pressure to do so).
Ryan’s answer to this was “they are spinning the centrifuges faster” — a nonsensical statement that means nothing. At which point one began to wonder: is this really the man Republicans want to put one heartbeat away from the presidency?
When Raddatz quoted Robert Gates, former defense secretary, that war with Iran could prove catastrophic — and could “haunt us for generations” — Ryan ignored the question, and went on to denounce alleged cuts in military spending, which are in reality only cuts in projected increases. Ryan also said we’ve got the smallest navy we’ve had since World War I — yet it’s ridiculous to measure our naval readiness in the number of ships, ignoring their capabilities. How much sense does it make to compare World War I frigates with nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers?
When the conversation turned to Afghanistan, Ryan agreed with the 2014 withdrawal date — but saying so advertises “weakness” to our enemies, and so he wouldn’t make it public. The Obama administration, by withdrawing troops during the fighting season, was making a “political” decision, and our remaining troops, he claimed, are “less safe.” Biden had a great answer for this:
“What we’ve found out — and we — you — you saw it in Iraq, Martha. Unless you set a timeline, Baghdad in the case of Iraq and — and Kabul in the case of Afghanistan will not step up. They’re happy to let us continue to do the job — international security forces to do the job. The only way they step up is say, fellas, we’re leaving; we’ve trained you; step up. Step up.”
Ryan had no answer to this because it is such a politically potent argument: the American people want out of Afghanistan. They are sick and tired of fighting other peoples’ wars. Step up — step up and take responsibility for your own life: that sounds like a Republican-style message, and yet the Vice President was the one making it.
Raddatz brought up Syria, and again Ryan tried desperately to carve out some real differences between his position and the administration’s — to little avail. Biden assured him the Obama administration is sending “humanitarian and other aid” to the rebels, and asked again if Ryan would prefer going to war with US troops on the ground. Ryan denied that, but struggled to define how he and Romney would do things differently.
Ryan stumbled over the answer to that question because a Romney administration wouldn’t deviate from Obama’s script all that much: rhetorically, we might strike a few more poses, but in reality the differences would be nearly undetectable. That’s because the War Party dominates both parties to such an extent that there is no real debate on foreign policy this election season — and there hasn’t been since the Vietnam war era. Obama is merely continuing, with a few unimportant variations, the same policy of global hegemonism and regime change in the Middle East that his predecessor began a decade ago.
The only difference is rhetorical — and, in politics, that makes all the difference. Biden spoke for a warmongering administration in the language of peace, while Ryan spoke for a campaign that wants to “prevent war” in the language of irreconcilable conflict.