The much awaited foreign policy debate Monday night probably did nothing to create a clear contrast between President Barack Obama and his challenger Mitt Romney. It did, however, confirm that neither candidate offers much of a foreign policy vision moving into the November election.
Furthermore, it proved that Romney’s “Grand Strategy” is nothing more than shaping his political tactics for the moment. Last night, he chose to agree with Obama on most of his foreign policy positions, cementing the caricature of Romney as an empty vessel and a chameleon who is largely uninformed on foreign policy on the whole.
Right out of the gate Romney seemed set to tamp down the neoconservative talk that has coursed through his previous foreign policy speeches, in favor of an almost softer approach to global change and turmoil. A week ago it would have seemed unfathomable. Monday, he talked about the Arab Spring as “hopeful,” because it promised political “moderation” and “opportunity for greater participation on the part of women in public life, and in economic life in the Middle East” (since when did he even care?) But now, he said, pointing to Syria, Libya and Mali and a Muslim Brotherhood President things are very “disturbing.”
“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he continued. “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.” Romney sounds like Bush II in his first term as president here. Furthermore, he repeated the word “peace” so many times in the first half of the debate, one would think he was trying now to channel the late Sen. George McGovern. This threw the President off at first, no doubt because he was all prepared to spar against another senator, Sen. John McCain, like in 2008.
After awhile, Obama was prompted to say in reference to Romney’s approach (which he’s obviously seen before), “you know, there have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that that would make a difference.”
Pundits on both sides seemed momentarily baffled at Romney’s performance, at least before settling upon the spin. “It was a very different dynamic on stage tonight,” Megyn Kelly of Fox News noted last night afterwards, wondering if Romney was struggling to distance himself from Obama’s policies or if that was the plan all along.
“I’m just going to call this debate the Big Hug,” said Joe Trippi, Democratic strategist, also on Fox. “I think the strategy was not to let Obama paint him as the radical guy who is going to take us to war.”
“It was obviously an effort not to sound like George W. Bush … he ended up sounding like Barack Obama,” said Stephen Hayes, of The Weekly Standard, who was soon engaging the Republican spin that Romney “meant” to do this and it worked.
What more and more GOP spinmeisters said throughout the night was that Romney’s team is reading the tea leaves in recent polls indicating that Americans are tired of war and war talk. He merely “adjusted” accordingly.
That’s why when Romney did try to distance himself from Obama on Syria, he stopped short of supporting American military to force Bashar Assad out of the country. He talked much about arming the opposition and creating a coalition among those forces and with Turkey and other Arab countries to make regime change happen, but he didn’t say how he would do it (and how it wouldn’t end up looking like Iraq). To everyone’s chagrin, he stayed away from the hot Benghazi consulate issue, which was expected to be the evening’s show-stopper.
More surprising than that, Romney clearly walked back his critique of Obama’s 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, saying “the surge has been successful” and that the training of Afghan troops is “moving apace” and that he would support the troops leaving on time. This led Obama to say the Afghans are “perfectly capable of defending their own country” (which we know is not true) without a peep of rebuttal from his opponent.
“This isn’t just changing your mind, but denying your positions on the record!” a visibly perturbed Rachel Maddow charged in the MSNBC wrap-up.
Romney and Obama did tussle over who were better friends with Israel, and who was tougher on Iran, but it was largely gratuitous. Here Romney seemed to get some of his neocon sheen back, talking about “indicting” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for talking about genocide, isolating Iran diplomatically and putting tighter sanctions on Iran to keep them from getting the capability to build a bomb. But he still agreed that Obama’s sanctions “are working.”
Romney admitted to liking drones, but we know Obama does too. He tried to argue why the Pentagon needs two trillion dollars while congress must slice and dice national healthcare and a host of other non-defense programs, but Obama just made Romney look like the superficial rookie on defense that he is.
For his part, Obama continued using the same litany of questionable foreign policy accomplishments to prove that his largely vague vision is working, beginning with closing out the Iraq war, and finishing with the death of Osama bin Laden. We are supposed to believe that after bombing North Africa, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Libya in the last year that we have more friends in the Muslim world because Obama says so. He, too, talks about “comprehensive plans” to make peace whether it be in Syria or Pakistan but offers no clear strategy on how to get there.
He, too, has read the polls and said several times that we need to “stop nation building” overseas and start doing some right here in the United States. It sounded a bit contrived, because it’s obvious there wasn’t much “nation building” really going on over there anyway. At least not enough to inspire much confidence in what Uncle Sam could do for say, Detroit, or even New Orleans.
Someone must have gotten to Obama from the veterans’ community, because he mentioned veterans and their needs several times before the end of the debate, raising not only the issue of their financial instability but their physical and mental disabilities too. Sadly, neither candidate talked about the dead and displaced across the world as the result of our “global outreach” over the last decade. Nor did they talk about Gitmo, or the drug violence in Central America. They talked much about our loyalty to Israel, but nothing about the Palestinians suffering in Gaza, even though fostering conditions in which extremism would not prevail supposedly topped both of their foreign policy agendas.
Republicans may forgive Romney for sounding like a “me too” but this debate should do nothing to ensure voters that either of these men are taking a long view for America’s interests abroad only the very short view for their own interests on Nov. 6.