Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Obama-Romney Foreign Policy Debate

by Michael Kaplan

Compared to the first two presidential debates the third debate, the one on foreign policy, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on Monday, October 22 was something of a snooze. There were no fireworks between President Obama and Governor Romney both of whom focused on not doing any harm to themselves.

The video of the debate is posted below and here and here. You can find the transcript here and here.

Overall Romney came off quite well. He gave the impression of being a sober and thoughtful statesman, while President Obama came across as peevish and petulant. Charles Krauthammer comments that “Romney went large, Obama went very, very small, shockingly small.” Romney’s strategy in the debate was to avoid going down in the mud with Obama and appear presidential. He succeeded in that. Indeed, Romney looked more presidential than the president. I would have liked Romney to be more aggressive, especially on the Obama Administration’s cover up of the terrorist attack by Ansar al-Sharia on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Bill O’Reilly suggests that Romney did not want to appear confrontational because it would be a turn off to women voters. Perhaps that is so. Anyway, if Romney does not win the election on November 6, it will not be because of his performance in the debates.
The main point I came away with from the debate was that Romney and Obama differ more in style and optics than in substance when it comes to foreign policy. Romney would present a tougher, more Jacksonian face of America to the world, while keeping in place many of Obama’s policies—policies that Obama himself inherited from George W. Bush. This is only natural. America’s geopolitical interests have a continuity over the long term that transcends the four or eight years of any administration. Democratic and Republican presidents from Truman through Reagan pursued the Cold War strategy of containment for forty years until the Soviet Union collapsed. Robert Merry, editor of The National Interest, a leading journal of the realist school of foreign policy, observed that “the Republican candidate who presented himself to the American people on foreign-policy issues came across as measured, moderate, informed and capable of handling complex issues with nuance and balance.” On Syria, for example, Romney would not intervene directly in that nation’s bloody civil war—there will be no American boots on the ground. But he would like to provide arms and assistance to some of the rebel groups to encourage a pro-American post-Assad regime and short-circuit the growing influence of the Islamists. Romney will continue to use sanctions against Iran, though he said he would make them tougher and more effective than Obama has, and would order a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities only as a last resort. Romney also plans to carry through on Obama’s commitment to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. And of course he praised the president’s decision to send SEAL Team Six after Osama bin Laden. Romney understands that Jacksonian America will not support any further nation building in the Muslim world. The American people have spent enough blood and treasure in what has become a Sisyphean task.
Where Romney did distinguish himself from Obama was in his commitment to a Reaganesque policy of peace through strength. On how to engage with the Muslim world going forward, Romney said this:
Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to kill them, to take them out of the picture. But my strategy is broader than that. That’s important, of course. But the key that we’re going to have to pursue is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.
The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world. And how do we do that? A group of Arab scholars came together, organized by the U.N., to look at how we can help the world reject these terrorists. And the answer they came up with was this: One, more economic development. We should key our foreign aid, our direct foreign investment—and that of our friends—we should coordinate it to make sure that we push back and give them more economic development. Number two, better education. Number three, gender equality. Number four, the rule of law. We have to help these nations create civil societies.
So Romney would embrace the Arab Spring governments, including democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood governments, and promote American influence through foreign aid and investment. But Romney would make such aid conditional and use it to nudge leaders such as Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi away from Islamic supremacism and onto a path that could in time create a civil society that reconciles Islam with liberal democracy. Whether this can be done is the big unanswered question of the Arab Spring. Islamic supremacism and the advance of the Jihad may yet prevail as Andrew McCarthy and Michael J. Totten argue. But the previous “realist” policy of unconditional support for the mukhabarat (secret police) states of Hosni Mubarak and his ilk in the Arab world has reached a dead end. Indeed it was these sterile Soviet-style autocracies which suffocated the aspirations of their young people for liberty, dignity, and upward mobility that produced Al Qaeda in the first place. As former C.I.A. analyst Bruce Reidel writes, reformers in the new Arab Spring governments “are trying to build more accountable and democratic regimes that don’t repress their own people. These new governments are trying to do something the Arab world has never done before—create structures where the rule of law applies and the secret police are held accountable to elected officials.” Reidel also admits “that is a tall order, especially when terrorists are trying to create chaos.” Mitt Romney understands this and appreciates that working with the new populist Arab regimes will be more complicated than working with the old dictators. But the long-term positive transformation of repressive societies is never simple or easy.
Engagement with the Arab Spring, however, does not mean apologizing for America. Romney was at his strongest when he blasted President Obama for his apology tours in the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America. These apology tours projected weakness instead of strength and it only encouraged the bad actors of the world to treat America with contempt. “I think from the very beginning,” Romney said, “one of the challenges we’ve had with Iran is that they have looked at this administration and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be. I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength.” Nothing is more galling to Jacksonians than the projection of weakness. And in the high stakes world of international politics projection of strength isn’t everything, it’s the only thing (h/t Vince Lombardi). Romney went on:

And then the President began what I’ve called an apology tour of going to various nations in the Middle East and criticizing America. I think they looked at that and saw weakness. Then when there were dissidents in the streets of Tehran, a Green Revolution, holding signs saying, is America with us, the President was silent. I think they noticed that as well. And I think that when the President said he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel, that they noticed that as well.
President Obama was visibly annoyed by Romney’s characterization of his foreign trips. But the governor stood his ground.
Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And, by the 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. And then in those nations, and on Arabic TV, you said that America had been dismissive and derisive. You said that on occasion America has dictated to other nations. Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators.
This was Romney’s best line of the entire debate. It showed his determination to clothe American foreign policy in the unswerving Jacksonian commitment to liberty through strength. The President of the United States never apologizes for America. He trumpets American exceptionalism to the world. He keeps the Ahmadinejads of the world off balance with the hint that he will use American might to pound them into the dust if they don’t take America’s demands in diplomatic negotiations seriously. Again the purpose of a strong military is to keep the peace by not having to use it too often. As Theodore Roosevelt understood, the Big Stick of the military is best kept in reserve to back up the softer more conciliatory voice of diplomacy. Mitt Romney also understands this. While he may continue much of the Obama foreign policy in practice, by presenting it to the world in Jacksonian colors he will project the strength needed to preserve peace and advance American interests in the world.
© 2012 Michael Kaplan


  1. Well put Michael and I am in complete agreement with all you said. I felt eh in fact was being himself and if anyone has done their homework, one knows Mitt is a middle of the road conservative at best, not hard right as some would want. Still much better than what we have now.
    On a different subject, a question. how do you feel about the Democrats requesting U.N. monitoring of our polling places? This in my view is beyond scary and is another example of this President not only giving up sovereignty but in my view once again vilifying the citizenry of this country.


    1. Joe,

      Yes, Mitt is not hard right. He's a pragmatic center right conservative businessman who knows how to manage the economy. Right now that really is what we need. I think he has shown he's conservative and Jacksonian enough to do the right things for the nation.

      These U.N. monitors are a disgrace. Monitors from Belarus are going ensure that an American election is fair! Ha! The liberal groups that want these monitors might well use them to try to suppress the conservative vote. We shall see.


  2. Hi Michael,

    I wanted to touch base and get your slant as to what's been going on the last few weeks. I kinda let go really good on my blog today,in effect letting all of my frustrations out, but I really want to dig into this deeper and try to put it into some sort of context without my emotions in the way.

    Hope all is well with you and yours.