The Foreign Policy Debate: Blog Reax III

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 23 2012 @ 11:40am


Beinart hails the third debate a victory for … George W. Bush:

Obama, Romney and Bob Schieffer discussed foreign policy almost exclusively through the Bush prism. The focus was on countries where the United States is already at war, or soon could be…. George W. Bush’s core mistake was his belief that because al Qaeda had bloodied us, it was the 21st-century version of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.

It never was, because in the mid-20th century, what made Moscow and Berlin genuine competitors was their economic strength. The true successor to those once fearsome powers is not the mud-hut totalitarianism of al Qaeda, but China, and perhaps India and Brazil, countries that are becoming economic models for billions in the poor world. How the United States, its own might sapped by the financial crisis and wars of imperial overstretch, meets the challenge posed by countries that are converting their economic success into geopolitical power, is the defining foreign policy question of our time. Not only wasn’t that question answered tonight, it wasn’t even posed.

Carl Scott notes that Romney may have missed an opportunity to attack Obama on this front:

Romney should have had some way to attack Obama for continually campaigning against Bush, but that would have involved some risk. Bad that Romney didn’t have the confidence to attempt this at all. He avoids complexity too much, and it was the only way he could go on offense on foreign policy. 

Meanwhile, John Cassidy pegs Obama's victory last night on Romney's having taken his "shape-shifting exercise too far": 

From the very beginning, you knew something fishy was going on. In his first question of the evening, Bob Schieffer, the courtly CBS veteran, brought up the recent deaths in Libya of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens….

But no. Rather than unsheathing his bayonet and ramming it into the President’s gullet, Romney said, “Mr. President, it’s good to be with you again,” and went off on a rambling discourse about the threats facing the world, taking in the Arab Spring, the carnage in Syria, the Iranian nuclear threat, the Muslim Brotherhood’s victory in Egypt, and the takeover of “the northern part of Mali”—yes, Mali—”by Al Qaeda-type individuals.” 

He adds:

It was hard to know which was more shocking: Romney paying tribute to Obama, or a Republican politician saying: “We can’t kill our way out this mess.” 

Jared Bernstein identifies this as the source of Romney's weakness:

His mode of operating throughout the campaign as well as in these debates is to try to figure out where particular voters are whose support he needs and adopt positions solicitous of them. If that position contradicted an earlier stance, so be it.

But on America’s role in the world many voters show significant ambivalence (i.e., to the extent that they’re paying attention—foreign policy is pretty far down voters’ list of concerns, for better or worse). They want a strong America shaping events across the globe but they’re deeply war weary. They want a state of the art military but have legitimate budget concerns. They’re nervous about outcomes in the Middle East but are rightfully suspicious of endless occupations that lack clearly defined goals.

Romney's performance involved issue-avoiding jujitsu, argues Fred Kaplan – but so did Obama's: 

[W]hile President Obama came off as thoughtful and decisive by comparison, and made frequent note of Romney’s flip-flopping (“you’re all over the map” was a favorite phrase of the night), he, too, engaged in long spells of evasion. The clearest takeaway from the night—nothing new, but still sad—is that it’s probably impossible for American politicians to have an honest discussion about foreign policy, especially in an election year.

Gregor Peter Schmitz views the discussion as emblematic of a backslide in foreign policy sophistication:

Romney's advisors are fully aware of the mood in the country. They counselled their candidate to avoid aggressive attacks and detailed discussions. More important, they said, was to appear harmless and folksy. And he did his best. Instead of repeating his infamous line that Russia is "without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe," Romney simply smiled when Obama accused him of wanting "to import the foreign policies of the 1980s." The president meant the line as a sardonic reproach and it likely helped him win the Monday night debate in the eyes of its viewers. But it leaves behind a stale aftertaste. After all, following the 90 minutes of debate in Boca Raton, 1980s US foreign policy seems modern and cosmopolitan by comparison.

Larison homes in on Romney's out-of-left-field mention of Mali:

The flaw in Romney’s mentions of Mali last night wasn’t that most voters presumably don’t know where the country is. The problem was that he mentioned Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s presence in the country without even a minimal effort to link this to the effects of the Libyan war. He simply assumed that rattling off several undesirable things from around the world would work as criticism, and he took it for granted that anything that goes wrong somewhere in the world can be laid at the door of the administration. It was an instance when he might have had a legitimate criticism to make, and he didn’t know what to do with it. 

Looking at the view from China, Bill Bishop sums up:

Beijing must be pleased. Tonight’s US Presidential debate was supposed to have a 10 minute segment on China but they barely talked about it. Governor Romney sounded much less confrontational towards Beijing (Bob Zoellick’s influence?). Romney did reiterate his crazy currency manipulation threat, but other than that he sounded a lot like….President Obama.

Josh Rogin points to Obama's approach as the more hawkish:

President Barack Obama called China an "adversary" of the United States for the first time during tonight's debate, changing his own administration's messaging on the U.S.-China relationship and contradicting his own secretary of state…. [A]s the Obama administration has [become] more wary of China's actions and intentions, Clinton has avoided calling China an "adversary." Asked last year if China were a "friend, foe, or adversary," she declined to say whether it were any one of the three.

Evan Osnos argues that, despite his posturing on "currency manipulation," Romney came off as weak on China: 

Romney’s tack toward the middle in his final debate … seemed to foreshadow to a Chinese audience the kind of softening that is consistent with a pattern that has run through three decades of American foreign policy: candidates who rail against China on the stump rarely follow through if they win, because China stops being a convenient foil and becomes instead a complicated reality.

Part of the explanation may be that Romney’s signature China issue—accusing the Chinese of artificially depressing the value of its currency to keep its goods cheap and American exports expensive—has lost much of its punch in recent months. Under American pressure, the yuan had risen about eight per cent against the dollar by this spring, when the Obama Administration hailed that as good news, even if it remained “significantly undervalued.” 

Jamelle Bouie calls it a "clear Obama knockout," though he worries about the seeping-in of domestic policy:

At various points during the evening, the debate shifted from foreign policy and became a fight over jobs and the economy. It was here that Romney regained a little momentum and fought Obama to a draw. Even if you believe that the president has a solid record on the economy—and I do—it remains a fraught issue with voters. A foreign policy debate isn’t the time or place to defend an economic record, and Obama risked a fair amount by bringing domestic issues into the fight. Even still, this was a clear Obama knockout.

Steve Kornacki, meanwhile, wonders whether the third debate even matters:

The problem for Obama is that Monday’s debate will probably have the smallest audience of all of them. And even if voters were more impressed with him than Romney, this remains an election that’s fundamentally about the economy. Nor was there a particularly dramatic or memorable moment that will live on for the rest of the race. Obama delivered a few funny lines …but there was no Romney meltdown.