One striking impression of this debate was that out of some 17,000 words uttered by both candidates and the moderator, about half of them were about domestic policy. Neither candidate wanted to talk about foreign policy — because the differences between them are negligible. Out of this half, about 1500 words were devoted to the subject of Israel — around 20 percent. And it’s not as if the candidates disagreed: indeed, they competed for the role of Israel’s Best Friend. Obama was first to pledge allegiance to Tel Aviv, less than ten minutes after the starting bell. Outlining the foundations of his foreign policy, he averred:
“What I’ve done throughout my presidency and will continue to do, is, number one, make sure that these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts; number two, make sure that they are standing by our interests in Israel’s security, because it is a true friend and our greatest ally in the region.”
According to the President, Israel’s security is our number two priority not only in the region, but also in a much broader sense, second only to going after our own enemies. That’s an odd way to define our hierarchy of foreign policy values: what about the security and prosperity of the region as a whole? The Israel-pandering was obsessive and I’m not the only one who noticed it.
No aspect of our Middle Eastern policy was discussed without reference to how it might play in Israel. When Syria came up, Obama made a point of saying that although “Syrians are going to have to determine their own future,” our efforts to aid the rebels are being carried out “in consultation with our partners in the region, including Israel, which obviously has a huge interest in seeing what happens in Syria.” Romney chimed in:
“Secondly, Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel… We need to make sure as well that we coordinate this effort with our allies and particularly with — with — with Israel.”
Never mind what the people of Syria want: it’s all about what Israel wants. This duet was sung in many variations. On Egypt, the President warned:
“They have to abide by their treaty with Israel. That is a red line for us, because not only is Israel’s security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels.”
This wasn’t enough for Romney, however, who came back with:
“We have to also stand by our allies. I think the tension that existed between Israel and the United States was very unfortunate.”
Not to be out-Israeled, the President struck back:
“Our alliances have never been stronger. In Asia, in Europe, in Africa, with Israel where we have unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation, including dealing with the Iranian threat.”
After all that, Bob Schieffer decided it was time to “move on to the next segment: red lines, Israel, and Iran.” A visitor from Mars might be forgiven for being confused at this point: didn’t the last segment cover that territory? Us earthlings understand, however, that when it comes to foreign policy, one can never kowtow too long or too low in the direction of Tel Aviv, and so Schieffer gave the candidates yet another opportunity to prostrate themselves before King Bibi:
“Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which of course is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan? And if you made such a declaration, would not that deter Iran? It’s certainly deterred the Soviet Union for a long, long time when we made that — when we made that promise to our allies.”
The President took over 250 words to declare his undying loyalty to the Jewish state, wielding all the familiar phrases endlessly uttered by both candidates over the course of the campaign like some sort of semi-religious litany: “ a true friend,” “our greatest ally in the region,” etc. — although purists will note “in the region” as a modifier is highly suspicious.
Repeating Israeli propaganda almost verbatim — including the long-debunked mistranslation of Ahmadinejad supposedly calling for Israel to be “wiped off the map” — Obama again touted “the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history” as he committed this country to war under the murkiest of circumstances. His pledge to defend Israel against “attack” raises some interesting questions: e.g. is that Hezbollah drone incursion grounds for us to start bombing Lebanon? What about Palestinian resistance to “settler” incursions? But the President wasn’t too concerned with nuance: he was too busy threatening Iran, hailing the “crippling sanctions” and gloating that “their economy is a shambles.”
Yes, and so is ours, a better Romney might have added, but instead he chimed in:
“Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily. That’s number one.”
The Republican nominee
went on to establish his pro-Israel credentials by mentioning that
he had made the same point at Israel’s Herzliya Conference,
where he laid out “seven steps” to
dealing with Iran, but only mentioned two.
Not to be outdone, Obama went much further than he’s ever gone on the Iran issue, coming very close to Romney’s (and Netanyahu’s) position:
“We’re not going to allow Iran to perpetually engage in negotiations that lead nowhere. And I’ve been very clear to them, you know, because of the intelligence coordination that we do with a range of countries, including Israel, we have a sense of when they would get breakout capacity, which means that we would not be able to intervene in time to stop their nuclear program, and that clock is ticking.”
Until now, the key difference between the two candidates on Iran has been this issue of “capability” — with Romney naturally echoing Netanyahu’s stance that we must strike as soon as we — somehow — know Iran has the mere theoretical capacity to assemble a nuclear weapon. Presumably Netanyahu will supply us with the relevant “intelligence.” The Obama administration, on the other hand, has been saying their red line is a clear attempt to actually acquire such weapons — that is, until now. “The clock is ticking” on Iran, Obama growled — and, as of Monday’s debate, it seems to be ticking much louder and faster.
Romney, in danger of being out-Israeled, struck back, attacking what he called the President’s “apology tour.” This, he declared, was seen by the Bad Guys as a sign of “weakness,” along with our failure to openly side with the leaders of the “Green Revolution — who neither asked for nor wanted such a declaration. Another sign of “weakness” was “When the president said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel that — that they noticed that as well.”
The “daylight” citation was reported by the Washington Post in the context of a 2009 meeting between Obama and US Jewish leaders on the collision between the US and Israel over the Palestinian question, not Iran. The delegation was dismayed by the President’s insistence that construction of “settlements” on Arab-owned land does not serve American interests — the same position taken by George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Bush Senior.
As this debate demonstrated, the degree of daylight between Israel and the US is rapidly diminishing to the point of near imperceptibility. Unlike his predecessors, this President would never dare withhold aid, and as far as the Israelis are concerned the White House can kvetch about the “settlements” until the cows come home.
However, Romney’s acquaintance with the facts is, at best, passing, and he stubbornly hammered away:
“Number two, Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to — to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to — to Turkey and Iraq. And — and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.”
The proper response to Romney is: Israel may be our “best friend,” but what kind of friendship requires a visit whenever you’re in the neighborhood? It’s an unreasonable — even crazy — demand, one that might well make a normal person reconsider the benefits of such an insecure relationship. But we aren’t dealing with normal people here, we’re dealing with politicians, and Obama’s response was to detail his trip during the 2008 campaign, his visit to the Holocaust Museum and to the targeted town of Sderot — an itinerary unlike Romney’s, who used the occasion of his own visit to do a little fundraising.
At this point, Schieffer, apparently concerned the candidates hadn’t talked enough about their fealty to Israel, asked what he apparently thought was a tough question:
“What if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: ‘Our bombers are on the way. We’re going to bomb Iran.’ What do you say?”
Romney wouldn’t go there, but I thought his answer was nonetheless revealing:
“Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.”
In other words: Netanyahu wouldn’t have to even bother telling us. Note, also, the reference to his personal friendship with the Israeli Prime Minister, which extends back 35 years: friends don’t ask friends for permission to start World War III.
In the course of the same answer, Romney reiterated his theme of the President’s alleged “weakness”:
“I see our influence receding, in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home, in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military and … in part because of the turmoil with Israel. I mean, the president received a letter from 38 Democrat senators saying the tensions with Israel were a real problem.”
This was too much for Obama, who blurted out: “No!” But Romney pressed on:
“They asked him, please repair the tension — Democrat senators — please repair the damage in his — in his own party.”
Again, that letter was the result of the White House’s rebuke to Netanyahu over the construction of more Israeli “settlements” — a position taken by all recent occupants of the Oval Office regardless of party. If we were to have any kind of real debate — or even a semblance of one — on Israel’s relations with the US, then the President would have come back with this simple fact. Perhaps he would have even asked Romney if he supports the right of the Israelis to build such “settlements” endlessly, without limit. But of course he said no such thing.
One has to wonder in what sense US opposition to the Israeli government’s ongoing depredations against the Palestinians, including the building of “settlements,” signals our “receding” influence. Does Romney believe America’s perceived decline is punishment from God for the “sin” of not following orders from Netanyahu on every conceivable question? Romney’s Mormon theology may explain this rather weird remark.
Every one of these debates has had these weird little moments, but this one seemed to have way more than the first two. As might be expected, Romney was the main author of these. Weirdest of all was when he was visibly struggling to come up with a scenario short of war with Iran, and latched on to the idea of “indicting” Ahmadinejad for “genocide incitation.” Leaving aside the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad’s words this charge is based on — the Iranian president was saying Israel would “vanish from the page of time” due to the Palestinian population explosion rather than a nuclear explosion — one wonders what court will issue the indictment, and under what legal standard. “Genocide incitation” is not against the law in the United States, although it is in Europe and in Russia: will the United Nations file the charges? Then again, Romney and Ryan criticize the present administration for relying too much on the UN, so it’s hard to make any real sense out of this little outburst.
The conventional wisdom is that Romney de-neoconned himself, for at least one night: does this mean his promised appointment of John Bolton as Secretary of State is off? I think not. Shape shifter Romney will take any form, even that of a relative peacenik: “We can’t kill our way out of this,” he declared, no doubt surprising the numerous and bloodthirsty red state fascists among his supporters. But did he have his fingers crossed under the table? There’s a simple explanation for Romney’s “peace” offensive: neocon snakes shed their skin when necessary.
Another weird moment was when Romney forgot who he was debating, and attacked Sen. Rand Paul, albeit not by name:
“We look at what’s happening in Pakistan and recognize that what’s happening in Pakistan is going to have a major impact on the success in Afghanistan. And — and I say that because I know a lot of people just feel like we should just brush our hands and walk away. And I don’t mean you, Mr. President, but some people in the — in our nation feel that Pakistan isn’t being nice to us and that we should just walk away from them. But Pakistan is important to the region, to the world and to us, because Pakistan has 100 nuclear warheads, and they’re rushing to build a lot more.”
It’s none other than Sen. Paul who sponsored a bill to defund Pakistan, Egypt, and Libya, and whose political action committee — RandPac — is running ads against West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin showing mobs of screaming Muslims burning the American flag: “Joe Manchin is against cutting aid to countries that burn our flag, and storm our embassies,” the ad intones. (Sen. Paul originally came out against aid to Israel as well, but has apparently backed off that one).
Stealing a line from Ron Paul, the President said — three times! — we need to stop nation-building abroad and start doing it at home. It’s no stretch to imagine John McCain attacking this as “isolationist,” but Romney — who can read polls as well as anyone — knew better. Instead, he masqueraded as some kind of Gandhi-like peacemaker, declared no troops would be sent to Syria, and reversed his earlier critique of Obama’s 2014 timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. War with Iran, he averred, would be a “last resort.”
Both candidates know the American people are sick unto death of war and endless intervention around the world, and both were smart to keep their warlike tendencies under wraps on this occasion. Yet there were moments when the mask came off, and both stood revealed for who and what they are — and it wasn’t pretty.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Fact-checking department: Obama said we lavish more on the military than the top ten spenders in the world: actually, it’s the top fourteen, or, depending on how you calculate the numbers, it’s more than the rest of the world combined. And finally, did anybody notice Schieffer’s opening stumble?:
“Good evening from the campus of Lynn University here in Boca Raton, Florida. This is the fourth and last debate of the 2012 campaign.”
There have been only three debates: it only seems like more….
Anybody could’ve gotten a preview of this column, in rapid bursts of short phrases, on Twitter last night: you can follow my Twitterverse shenanigans here.