Romney’s Structural Handicap: An In-Depth Analysis of The Foreign Policy Issue in the Presidential Election
This article’s purpose is to give a full analysis on the foreign policy aspects of the third debate between President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. Remember that the idea that someone “won” the debate in terms of an outside observer’s standpoint or even based on a poll is misleading. The only important thing is whether either candidate swayed additional voters to his side. Since I’m writing this to provide a detailed assessment, I’m not going to try to be short. So for your convenience let me begin by briefly explaining how Romney is so handicapped in dealing with foreign policy:
–He either cannot or has decided for strategic reasons not to name the enemy, revolutionary Islamism.
–He either cannot or has decided for strategic reasons not to discuss in sharp terms how Obama has objectively helped this enemy become stronger while weakening America’s allies.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that America faces a long struggle, since this would make voters unhappy and prefer Obama’s promise that he has brought peace.
–It is not politically profitable for him to explain that democracy and economic development are not panaceas for the Middle East.
Given either the terms of the larger debate or the strategic decisions of the Romney campaign (based on an arguably realistic assessment of American voters, or at least the additional votes he needs to win), Romney starts out at a huge disadvantage. He did not overcome this handicap in the presidential debate.
Now to the debate itself.
Romney began with an assessment of the “Arab Spring” as having gone wrong. It brought hope “that there would be a change towards more moderation,” but instead there was the bloody Syrian civil war; the terror attack on American personnel in Libya; the takeover of northern Mali by “al-Qaida type individuals”; and a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, alongside Iran’s continuing drive for nuclear weapons.
What is to be done? Romney continued:
But we can’t kill our way out of this mess. 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, which is — it’s certainly not on the run.
The threat is “a group that is now involved in 10 or 12 countries” that “presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America, long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”
But what is that group? Al-Qaida? And this is a genuine problem that Romney has faced, either because a presidential candidate cannot name the enemy more explicitly or because he’s making a mistake in choosing that strategy. For is the problem al-Qaida — a tiny terrorist organization — or massive revolutionary Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood?
Obama prefers the focus to be on al-Qaida. He ignored all the points Romney had made and focused on what he could claim as accomplishments: that there had been no new September 11; that the war in Iraq was ended; that “al-Qaida’s core leadership has been decimated”; that the U.S. forces are pulling out of Afghanistan; and that he has rebuilt alliances and united friends against threats. He continued that Romney had opposed a nuclear treaty with Russia and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
On Libya he merely repeated his previous statement that once he received news of the killings he directed that Americans there be kept safe, the matter be investigated, and that those responsible be punished. He added that he had provided leadership in overthrowing the Muammar Gaddafi dictatorship without putting in troops and at low cost, making Libyans like Americans.
This certainly would seem to voters to be a record of success, presented in part by not mentioning any of the current problems to which Romney referred. Implicitly, Obama was speaking as if an end of history had been achieved in the region — as if Libya would not be the source of further trouble; the Taliban might not take over in Afghanistan; Iran might not gain influence over Iraq; al-Qaida was not still very much alive; and crises in Egypt, Syria, and elsewhere did not continue.
For electoral reasons, Romney does not want to tell the American people that there is a long, hard struggle ahead. So he puts forth a relatively low-cost, pain-free strategy of getting “the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own.” Instead of another Iraq or Afghanistan — that is, American military intervention — U.S. strategy should be to go after extremist leaders while helping the “Muslim world.”
How is that to be done? He answers: “more economic development”; “better education”; “gender equality”; and the “rule of law” by helping “these nations create civil societies.” Romney is not going to point out that the problem is the growing rule of [Sharia] law.
Obama responds with a…cheap trick: “Governor Romney, I’m glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida….”
If al-Qaida is the biggest geopolitical threat facing America in the world, then the United States has nothing to worry about but occasional terrorist attacks by a relatively weak group that cannot seize and hold power anywhere. In other words, if Romney cannot ridicule that claim, he has one hand tied behind his back. Whether this is a necessary strategy for him given the situation or a mistake I will leave to the readers.
Obama also caught Romney’s mistake — which I pointed out at the time — in implying there should still be U.S. troops in Iraq. He also got across the snide but effective point, “I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy.” I must confess that the idea of Obama being the senior statesman well-seasoned in international affairs is rather bizarre.
In other words, the framework imposed on the foreign policy discussion favors Obama. He is saying: You see, I am making these problems go away so the United States doesn’t have to fight. Romney must bring the psychologically unwelcome news that problems aren’t going away.
In the most implicitly funny remark of the night, Obama could even say: “What we need to do with respect to the Middle East is strong, steady leadership, not wrong and reckless leadership that is all over the map.”
So now Romney was on the defensive, not so much because of a lack of skill or of good arguments but because he is trapped in the need to sound optimistic and not promise costs and casualties in comparison to Obama’s “good news” that everything is going great. He does respond that he views Iran as the greatest national security threat, adding, “I’m not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia, or Mr. Putin.”
The real problem is the wearing of rose-colored glasses when it comes to the Middle East.
Romney tries to get across the point — perhaps too detailed for viewers — that Obama failed to get an agreement with Iraq on the status of U.S. forces. Instead, there is a long back and forth about how many troops each wanted to keep in Iraq. Obama’s interruptions prevented Romney from getting his point across while Obama repeated the accurate claim that his opponent said there should still be U.S. troops there.