What did we learn from the presidential foreign policy debate? Not much specific or substance. China did not make an appearance in the first hour. This is not surprising -- for three reasons. These debates are more about self-presentation than candid statements of position on international issues. Words are used to project images that resonate among voters, or to score points, rather than to illuminate and to engage minds. Complex problems, tough trade-offs, and the risks of being the world's indispensable power everywhere cannot be handled in sound bites.
That tendency is reinforced this year by both candidates' own low comfort level with foreign affairs. Mitt Romney's knowledge is so flimsy and his declarations so cliché ridden as to betray a distinct lack of comprehension or interest -- this despite the fact that he's been prepping for his presidential run for six years. In citing Russia as the most dangerous threat to the United States, he signaled a mindset that ossified a generation ago. As for Barack Obama, residency in the White House has provided the experience of an eventful four years but has left him without strategic design or a modulated sense of national interests. Coping has been his vocation. Flitting across the surface of the country's external relations reflects the pattern of avoidance among America's political class who are of one in downplaying our failures (Iraq, Afghanistan), relentless in pursuing a course without destination or measure of success (the eternal global War on Terror), impulsive in courting the next conflict (Iran) and taking comfort in the blind faith that an "exceptional" America with God on its side is destined to lead the world forevermore.
Neither President Obama nor Mr. Romney offered the slightest qualification to this "pageant of American history" reading of our place in the world. The former boldly announced, a few months ago, that "America was back" -- meaning that we indisputably were king of the hill after some tough forays down in the lowlands. Exactly what we were doing down there, with what outcomes, with what damage to our status and influence among other peoples went unsaid. He is equally silent on the lurking question of what this "exceptionalism" means for future interventions in the greater Middle East or how we would pay for them. Romney, for his part, ridicules the president for the alleged sin of even contemplating negotiations with lesser governments (Iran) and puts on a display of pre-emptive muscle flexing in blowing steam as to how he plans to stick it to the Chinese upstarts (with no mention of the $1.2 trillion of U.S. Treasury debt tucked away in Beijing vaults).
Obama had to observe limits on what he could say since he is obliged to conduct the nation's foreign relations for next three months at least. Hence, his desire to avoid specifics about current issues. Romney, by contrast, has given himself license to say anything when on the attack. He felt free to slam Obama for his alleged willingness to negotiate one-on-one with the Iranians were he re-elected without taking into account the risk of foreclosing an avenue that could prove useful to a Romney administration. What is the basis for supposing that anything that comes out of Mitt Romney's mouth in public settings represents belief/conviction when he has contradicted himself on just about everything as a matter of routine? He has a buccaneer investor's mentality for whom there is now only one bottom line: getting into the White House. He will put his political chips anywhere there looks to be a good return.
Bill Keller wrote in The New York Times this morning on "what Romney can say to sound like a credible commander in chief." There in a nutshell is the problem. To know whether Romney has the makings to be a responsible president, we need a clear, honest statement of his thinking -- not his acting ability. Today, even supposedly astute observers do not recognize the imperative to distinguish between the two.
One omen of a candidate's true feelings is the advisers with whom he has surrounded himself. Romney has opted to sign up the whole package of neo-conservatives first supplied to Rick Perry by Donald Rumsfeld. They are all founding members of the coterie that led the Bush administration, and the country, to wrack and ruin in Iraq. Indeed, Romney was holed up with Don Senor as his chief tutor this past weekend. Senor achieved notoriety as the public affairs director and spokesman for L. Paul Bremmer III in the Green Zone where he was dubbed a worthy successor to "Baghdad Bob."
There is a deeper reason for the devious manner that international issues are addressed in the campaign. The candidates shared an absolute confidence that the United States must continue to act worldwide as the last best hope of mankind around the globe which stifles honest discourse about what are truly vital national interests, about reconciling ambitious ends with limited means, about rediscovery of statecraft and applying the arts of diplomacy to make that reconciliation on terms that promise other than non-stop wars, penury and the continued degrading of our most valuable national asset -- our prestige and moral authority. Neither candidate gave any inkling last night of a readiness to face squarely these new realities. They think that doing so is electoral suicide. Besides, they have not through the implications -- much less reached any solid conclusions. So we were treated to platitudes and studied displays of toughness in place of debate that shows a decent respect for the opinions of the American citizenry.
It is revealing that the debate kicked off with the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Sparks flew over who should be blamed. That's entertaining but of no big consequence. When the United States gets out in front, literally and figuratively, in the world's most violent places, Americans are going to get hurt. We have no immunity, those are the truths to highlight.
The practical implications of insisting on American exceptionalism are profound. Let us consider Iran. The (likely) failure of sanctions to force the Islamic republic to bend the knee in surrender to our demands will put us on the road to war -- a war whose repercussions will make Iraq and Afghanistan look like minor incidents (except to the immediate victims, of course). Yet there was complete agreement during the debate on the direness of the Iranian threat, and the commitment never to allow the mullahs to get close to having the potential for possessing a nuclear bomb -- whatever the exaggerated differences on tactics.
Understandably. This is the view propagated by both the Bush and Obama administrations for a dozen years. It exercises complete dominion in the media, in the think tanks and among our political class generally. From the unanimity of opinion, one would never realize that it is based on suppositions of dubious validity. In a serious national discourse among presidential candidates, they at least should have been put under the spotlight. After the disastrous misjudgments and intellectual slight-of-hand that pushed us into Iraq, is it unrealistic to expect a more honest examination of aims and purposes in what has become a run-up to war? Last night's evidence suggests that it indeed is unrealistic.
The crucial assumption is that Iran is a criminal state. That judgment, however, is not based on any standard definition of international criminality. The only offense for which it has been judged guilty is a technical violation of its obligations as a signatory of the NPT to inform the IAEA in a timely way of all its nuclear activities -- in this case, civilian activities. (That since has been done). That's it. The NPT stipulates no prohibition whatsoever on uranium enrichment to any level, activities that were considered an integral part of the civilian fuel cycle at the time the Treaty was drafted. It has not been amended. In effect, Iran is declared an international pariah on an administrative procedural issue. The rough analogy is Al Capone being convicted by the federal government for tax evasion -- not murder, extortion, gambling, rum running, etc. The difference is that Iran has not been engaged in analogous crimes -- just the "tax evasion."
So, should we be content with a faux debate on tactics for bringing to heal a supposedly rogue, hostile regime? Or should we be assessing what can be done to avoid a cataclysmic war by reaching agreement on terms that satisfy our reasonable concerns and Iran's legitimate security concerns? No one who believes that the responsible leaders of the Republic are honor-bound to be explicit about the whys and wherefores of again taking the country to the brink of war with scant forethought can be satisfied by what passed for a foreign policy debate.