Why a Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy might yet loom
large during an Election campaign focused on the Economy
Monday, October 22, 2012
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
Apparently, I am pretty much all alone on the "island" (or- much more likely- I got voted off the island in some Political Punditry version of something along the lines of the reality show Survivor!) but I seem to be one of the few- at most- who honestly think that this last Presidential Debate of 2012 focusing on (well-- at least it's supposed to be focusing on) Foreign Policy may well have no little effect on the eventual outcome of the upcoming Presidential Election.
Of course, I am well aware that the Economy is, indeed, the overriding Issue of the Day as Americans go about choosing the man who will be serving as President after Noon Eastern Time US (1700 GMT) next 20 January and that the efforts by each Major Party campaign- in trying their utmost to attract that as yet undecided, mostly independent, "bell curve" voters in the Center of the current nationwide political landscape- is largely geared to this reality; I am also aware that "winning" a Debate is- in no way- tantamount to actually winning the Election (and I- most certainly- have not subscribed to the rather ludicrous notion [within the Wild, Wonderful and Wacky World of American Political Punditry] that, had President Obama "won" the First Presidential Debate, this election would already be all but over [and in Obama's favor to boot!]-- RIDICULOUS!!). However, having said this, what each nominee- Barack Obama or Mitt Romney- might (or might not) say in tonight's Debate will have an important impact (for better or for worse, relative to each candidate) upon said Election-- and not just because this last "head-to-head" meeting between them will, in very many ways, form the last (and, therefore, most lasting) impression on the average American voter going into Election Day itself.
For Foreign Policy as an issue- perhaps even more so than the Economy, along with other Domestic Issues- well illustrates the problems lurking within the campaign of the challenger, Governor Romney- problems that, in turn, potentially and adversely affect the Republican nominee's campaigning on those more overriding Issues of the Day:
From the very beginning of his campaigning for the Presidency- going all the way back to even well before this year's Presidential Primary and Caucus "season" began this past January- Mitt Romney has had two concomitant and basic overarching themes behind his own candidacy: 1. 'I am the one Republican who can beat President Obama' and 2. 'I am (obviously) not President Obama'.
Yes, 'tis true that each and every candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination said much the same thing until Romney himself had clinched the nomination by the time that Primary/Caucus "season" had ended in late June but- as I myself had (and have) said all along (and despite such as, for example, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich claiming that a "Massachusetts moderate" like Romney could not win the Presidency)- Mitt Romney represented (as he clearly still does) the best chance the Republicans had to regain the White House, precisely because- unlike a Gingrich; or a former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum; or a Congressman Ron Paul (let alone all those others who so "bubbled up" during the 'ABR' [Anyone But Romney] phase of the GOP presidential nomination campaign: a Michele [there!-- finally spelled it right!! ;-)] Bachmann, a Herman Cain, a Rick Perry)- Romney could, better than all those heretofore named, better attract (and, therefore, fight for) those very "bell curve" Center voters.
In his quest for his Party's nomination, Governor Romney had a rather tough road to hoe- for he, indeed, did have to convince the very "bell curve" of his own Party (which is ever to the Right of Center, just as the "bell curve" of the Democratic Party is always to the Center's Left) that he was just Right of Center enough (while not so far Right that he would have difficulty battling for the Center per se once he had been formally nominated) to truly win the Grand Old Party's imprimatur to run as its standard-bearer (in this regard, President Obama himself had something of an advantage in that the White House incumbent faced no serious challenge from his Left which would have otherwise forced the President to have the same issues- albeit on the other side of Center- that Romney himself faced during the presidential nomination campaign). Once he had gained at least such a formal imprimatur of those who actually run the Republican Party US (complaints- where not also whining- of at least the "hard core" of, say, Ron Paul supporters notwithstanding [like I've already said: whether or not Ron Paul's views and vision might indicate the future of the GOP, it surely is not the Republicans' NOW!]), Romney could then concentrate on item #2 within his quest to win the Presidency: 'I am not President Obama'.
Problem is: this very theme is, itself, fraught with many potential difficulties...
first, it has made it at least somewhat more difficult for Governor Romney to attract those voters in the "bell curve" Center who were already trending towards (although not yet so firmly committed to) Obama/Biden (if only because, where voters are already so trending, simply saying 'well, I'm not Obama' to them is not, in and of itself, a device of political attraction to begin with [if a voter says 'I like X', telling him or her 'well, I'm not X' seems rather ineffective on its face!]); Romney's choice, as his running mate, of Congressman Paul Ryan- someone clearly beyond the charge of being the R I N O (Republican In Name Only: as the more conservative within the Party have derisively referred to those Republicans more moderate than they) Romney himself risked being called, in part due to his tenure as Governor of an otherwise (very) liberal Massachusetts (Romney's own claims [throughout both is Primary and General Election campaign] that he was no less a conservative- simply someone who found himself forced to deal with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature- smacks all too much of "plausible deniability")- also, at least initially, harmed his ability to better attract that "bell curve" independent American voter in the Center (yet Romney had to pick a running mate who was more attractive than he to the doctrinaire conservative Republican base: if it hadn't been Paul Ryan, it would have been someone else more demonstrably conservative [as seen by that very GOP base] than Romney himself [though Ryan himself complicates matters, largely because he came to the GOP National Ticket with that "baggage" generally known as the 'Ryan budget' which- however much one supports it or not- is, nonetheless, the stuff of no little controversy!])...
second, it has only served to emphasize Governor Romney as (to use that rather unfortunate turn of phrase used, at a time Romney was still only closing in on that presidential nomination that soon would be his, by someone in Romney's own campaign!) an 'Etch-a-Sketch' candidate (an analogy which was intended only to indicate a truism of American Major Party Politics [in the specific case of the Republican Romney, as much as he might have to run to his Right in seeking his Party's nomination, he would then have to- more or less- "erase" at least some of what he might have said during the Primary campaign in order to then better compete for the Center come the now-ongoing General Election campaign]): however, and indeed, many a political observer has seen Romney as- even more- something of a political palimpsest (that is: Romney's pre-Convention campaign statements on various and sundry issues have only been partially so "erased")...
I, meanwhile, would point out that a palimpsest, at least, actually has something written on it before erasure!
And the Foreign Policy side of this Presidential Election campaign quite well illustrates this very kind of thing: for Romney/Ryan's mere 'I'm not President Obama' approach to Foreign Policy is almost palpable.
Romney (along with Ryan, of course) have become very good at criticizing the Foreign Policy of the Obama Administration without saying all that much about just what a 'Romney Administration' might do all that differently: claims are made that the "Obama Foreign Policy is unraveling" without all to many- if any!- examples of just what it is that is so "unraveling" and- even if, arguably,so- just a.) how a 'President Romney' might reverse this trend and, perhaps more to the point, b.) what a 'President Romney'- were he the current occupier of the White House- himself might have done to avoid such an "unraveling".
Romney/Ryan criticizes Obama/Biden for not doing more in Syria (this, further, implying that the Obama Administration is itself incapable [which, if only also by implication, a 'Romney Administration' would not be] of doing even more to aid the rebels currently taking on the regime of Bashar al-Assad [when the fall of Gaddafi in Libya- re: which the Obama Administration did do quite a lot- is presented as a retort to such an implication (here- if only for the moment- putting aside issues surrounding the attack on, and assassination of, the American Ambassador to Libya- Chris Stevens and his retinue in Benghazi this past 11 September), the Romney/Ryan camp responds with their litany of "Obama leading from behind" (the [flawed] theory here being that Europeans-rather than Americans- took the lead re: Libya, conveniently forgetting that 1. said Europeans were not going to do anything without the support of that North Atlantic Treaty Organization of which they are members and 2. NATO itself [as, as I have already noted in previous Commentaries, that "constellation" that, in effect, makes up America's own "3rd empire"], does not do anything without the at least tacit approval of the United States of America [SACEUR (the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe) is ever a United States General (or Flag) Officer who is constitutionally (NATO be damned: the Constitution of the United States is, nonetheless, controlling here) responsible to his Commander-in-Chief, in this case President Barack Hussein Obama himself! -- is the Republican standard-bearer so daft as to believe that, should he win the Presidency, he would not have the same predominant influence over NATO? Rather, the question should be: does Romney assume the American electorate itself to be so daft as to not at all recognize this? Maybe so-- perhaps not ;-)]. NATO not only works- but survived its initial reason for even being [the Cold War]- precisely because it is a "constellation" and not [as was the case with the Soviets' own 'Warsaw Pact'] an Imperium! In NATO, the metropole actually allows [key word here, though: "allows"] its periphery to lead... which is largely why NATO can still not only exist [not only that, but it even expanded its membership to include one-time 'Warsaw Pact' countries!] but be effective!)-- granted, such an argument is rather effective in an atmosphere of American Politics as Road Rage but this does not mean all of this is not above something of an all due 'Reality Check'!])...
as to Iran's potentially gaining nuclear weapons capability, Romney/Ryan criticizes the Obama Administration for even talking, as it does, to the Islamic Republic's leadership cadre re: this issue: indeed, Ryan- as he did during the Vice-Presidential Debate- has insisted that America has to [somehow] 'change the ayatollahs' mind(s)'... but, as Vice President Biden himself stated during that particular exchange, the only effective thing available beyond negotiation is going to war against Iran. Let us not at all forget from where the very term 'Jingoism' comes-- it is from a bit of old English music hall doggerel during the era of the Crimean War [1853-1856] which gave at least two things to popular Western culture: Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade ("Cannon to the right of them; cannon to the left of them... storm'd at with shot and shell", etc.) and, yes, the very term 'Jingoism' for unbridled Nationalism potentially expressed (or, at least, threatened to be so expressed) via primarily military (as opposed to diplomatic) means.
We don't want to fight- but, by jingo, if we do: we've got the ships, we've got the men- and we've got the money, too!
What is most haunting about this, nowadays, is the line that immediately follows: And they shan't have Constantinople! (as in today's Istanbul... the major port city in modern Turkey [still, as back in the 1850s, controlling the outlet of the Black Sea], itself a NATO ally of the USofA and bordering both Syria and Iran!)
Doubtless, Romney and Ryan and their supporters would take all due exception to just such a charge of Jingoism, yet (as already noted above) we had Biden- during his one Debate with Ryan- asking, seemingly rhetorically, "You're talking about doing more: what are you-- you're going to go to war? Is that what you want to do now?" at which point Ryan interrupted him by exclaiming " We want to prevent war!"... the onlooker can be forgiven for, right then and there, thinking 'But, by jingo, if you don't!'
(Biden himself, at this point, continued by asking "How are they going to prevent war if they say that there's nothing more that we should do than we've already done?" and, later, "What more can the President do?"...
I'm here reminded of an old joke about two crusty, where not also curmudgeonly, old-line New England 'Yankee's attending a local campaign function before which a politician is speaking: one, who is hard of hearing, turns to the other and asks "What's he talkin' 'bout?" to which the other laconically replies "He don't say!")
And this is the main point of all that I have brought up to this point in this very piece: that the Romney/Ryan campaign has been very good at saying much about what Obama has (allegedly or not) done wrong (or not done) when it comes to Foreign Policy but without all that much specificity on its own part.
Indeed, the campaign of the Republican National Ticket has- to this very late date in the Fall Campaign- been spending all too much time and effort trying to portray the Obama Administration as having more than a little nonchalance about the many challenges faced by America and its allies all over the Globe (which explains why, for example, Congressman Ryan- in his Debate with Joe Biden- brought up President Obama "instead of meeting with [Israeli Premier Bibi Netanyahu], go[ing] on a daily talk show" [to which the Vice President retorted that President Obama had had an hour-long confab with Netanyahu via conference call]; it explains why Romney- in his own most recent Debate with the President- purposely emphasized how "the day after [the fatal attack on Ambassador Stevens and others in Libya]", Obama "[flew] to Las Vegas for a political fund-raiser, then the next day to Colorado for another... political event" [which forced Obama to shoot back re: his addressing the event in the Rose Garden itself that day before so flying off]; it also explains why Ryan- during his Debate with Biden- went to great lengths to suggest the eastern portion of Afghanistan [that closest to Pakistan] is wide open to the Taliban because of the removal of American troops during the so-called "Fighting Season" [to which Biden, at least, pointed out that the Americans so withdrawn were being replaced by Afghanis trained to defend their own country]) instead of doing much of anything significant to respond to Biden's own query during his Debate with Ryan: "What would my friend do differently? If you notice, he never answers the question!"
No... Romney/Ryan doesn't... because their campaign so often appears to be more trying to finesse Foreign Policy by simply saying "At least we're not President Obama"-- but little else!
Here is why tonight's Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy becomes most crucial- to both Major Party candidates participating therein- even in the middle of a Presidential Election campaign in which Foreign Policy otherwise seems but a distant second to the Domestic Issues (the Economy, Health Care, etc.) that are otherwise driving it:
1. Romney/Ryan has not been all that above trying to so finesse economic issues in very much the same way as I have described above as regards Foreign Policy- to here take one rather glaring example: Romney complains that Obama/Biden's claims of a $2 trillion defense budget on top of a $5 trillion tax cut overall is (as Governor Romney has so often complained) "not my plan"-- maybe so, but- in the main- we really don't know precisely what Romney's economic plan is (beyond his incessantly stated five "bullet points" that portend to be the very "mission statement" of said "plan")...
thus, the "I'm not President Obama" approach I have already described seems but a "symptom" of a more encompassing "disease"...
in terms of Foreign Policy per se, however, Romney (especially considering he is the challenger in this Election) should not find it so easy to get away with this (that is: unless President Obama goes back to doing, in this final Debate, that which he did [or, for that matter, did not do] in the first Debate [which, in turn, is why most observers of that Debate felt that the President not only "lost" it but "lost" it rather badly [I, meanwhile, concluded that- yes- the President did "lose" the First Presidential Debate--- only not that badly (although Politics does tend to produce its own "Alternative Reality" during the "heat of battle"!)]);
2. Foreign Affairs certainly have not taken a vacation while we Americans continue to debate, amongst ourselves, just which economic indicator means just what re: the status of the Economy in and of itself as well as its Recovery (or lack thereof): we have recently had the Taliban's attempt to assassinate Malala Yousafzai- a teenage Pakistani Muslim girl of Pashtun ethnicity (one shared by many Afghanis, by the way) who has, for some three years now, been thrust into the role of an activist for education for girls in her part of the country, as well as a car bombing in Beirut which killed (among others) a leading Lebanese intelligence official and which also, as of this typing, may well signal a spreading of the civil war in neighboring Syria into a country in the internal affairs of which the al-Assad regime, now under great pressure from rebellion, has ever claimed the right to meddle...
in the midst of events such as these, it is not going to be all that easy- for either candidate during tonight's Debate- to avoid specific responses to any questions involving just such things!
Governor Romney, for his part, has not really done all that well within the realm of Foreign Policy-- the subject certainly does not appear to be his strongest suit (thus, it is altogether fortunate for the GOP nominee that the Economy has been- and remains- the principal issue on the minds of the average American voter [as was clearly indicated by the subject matter of the questions asked in last week's Debate]) and, in addition, he seems to- all too often- have a penchant for getting all too "hung up" on the details (for instance: this is the very reason the Republican standard-bearer, frankly, "blew" that which I termed 'Round 8' of the Second Presidential Debate last Tuesday: as valid- or, at least, reasonable- as his criticism of the Obama Administration for a fortnight's delay in more formally and publicly acknowledging the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi as one carried out by a terrorist group might well be, Romney seemed far more concerned with achieving a "Gotcha!" moment that not only ended up eluding him but, in the end, merely ended up blowing up in his own face [the semantics of the phrase "acts of terror" versus "terrorist acts" notwithstanding]-- precisely why I myself described Romney's handling of this as [a]ll in all, too much proverbial "failing to see the forest for the trees"!).
Simply put: while it is quite possible that Romney/Ryan's methodology of dealing with many- if not most- Issues of the Day (as I myself have described it herein) is all OK with much- where not most- of the American electorate of Anno Domini 2012 (we'll certainly see as the election returns begin to come in during the evening of Tuesday 6 November next!), it certainly does not seem, at least to me, that Governor Romney can- for lack of a better term- afford to all that much "look bad" (in comparison to President Obama, obviously) during this final Presidential Debate, its intended emphasis on Foreign Affairs notwithstanding. Meanwhile, the President cannot allow himself another Debate like that first one!
Yes, it may well be that the proverbial "worm" has already well "turned" and that this Presidential Election will be decided (if it hasn't been already [the margin of the truly undecided- as of this typing- does appear to be rather slim]) without any real reference to the "outcome" of tonight's Debate by the individual American voter who has not already availed himself/herself of 'Early Voting' (where available) or an Absentee Ballot already filled out (I myself was something of an "Early Voter" during the first four General Elections in which I was able to vote: away from my home State of New Jersey whilst attending college in Massachusetts, I more usually had my Absentee Ballot filled out [actually "punched out", as the Absentee 'Ballot' of the mid-1970s from my State and County was all punch cards-- Goodness! Hope I hadn't left any "hanging chads"!! ;-) ] by now- a good two weeks or so before Election Day itself, so I well know the feeling!)... but, if this Presidential Election is truly still "up in the air", I would find it quite hard to believe that tonight's Debate won't have an effect on the outcome, despite its subject matter.