First, to the political outcome of the third American presidential debate, this time focused on foreign policy: Obama won cleanly but Romney did all that he had to do. CNN’s post-debate polling got it about right; by 48-40%, those who watched judged Obama the winner. However – and far less remarked upon by a left-leaning American media increasingly panicked about the outcome – that same poll showed that in terms of who the debate made those watching more likely to vote for, 25% said Romney, 24% percent the President, and 50% said neither. It is this latter poll that far better expresses what went on here.
There are three basic takeaways from this. First, Romney had to pass the commander-in-chief test, reassuring the electorate that he could be trusted to run the world’s greatest power. Second, President Obama had to show his supporters that his appalling performance in the game-changing first debate was the fluke, and not his far more assured turn in the second encounter. Both men easily cleared those hurdles. Third and critically, foreign policy is an after-thought for Americans in these anxious economic times; 50% of the audience simply did not care that much about the topic, and admitted to being unmoved by the contest itself. So on balance, the third debate was a political wash, with nothing occurring to at all change the trajectory of a race now far too close to call.
But the ground over which the foreign policy debate was waged does offer a fascinating insight as to where America finds itself in these early days of the multipolar era. Fascinatingly, both President Obama and Governor Romney used every opportunity to say what they were not, even if they were hazier on what they actually stood for.
Obama took the offensive, trying to paint his challenger as the Son of Bush, a neo-conservative horror movie that Americans decisively don’t want to see. Mocking Romney’s assertion of some time back that former Vice President Dick Cheney was “someone who shows great wisdom and judgment,” Obama witheringly asserted that lacking judgment about such men and their records was “Taking us back to those strategies that got us into this mess.” Later on the President accused his challenger of “trying to airbrush history.” Regarding Romney’s support for the Iraq invasion, Obama continued the assault, “every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.”
At last, there it is. Without the term neo-conservative ever being mentioned (admittedly a great number of Americans might well not know what that meant), the colossal mess that resulted from George W. Bush following their lead became the underlying context of the whole debate, just as their titanic failure continues to haunt and in some ways dominate thinking on American foreign policy to this day.
Then – adroitly and incredibly – Romney agreed. In terms of tactics, he continually tried to change the subject back to the economy, where he has regularly bested the President in all three debates. This allowed him to tacitly go along with Obama’s sound bite that, “Part of American leadership, is making sure that we are doing nation-building at home.”
But Romney’s rhetorical disavowal of neo-conservatism went beyond the general and into foreign policy specifics. Arguing that a principal American goal in the Middle East must be to empower Muslims who reject extremism, Romney plaintively argued, “We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan.” Somewhere, far in the distance, Dick Cheney could be heard screaming.
This certainly was far from the continued (all facts to the contrary) neo-con triumphalism over both wars. For the uncomfortable fact remains that neo-cons have not been punished (as should happen in all healthy democracies) for their gigantic mistakes. They do not resemble the Kennedy and Johnson people who slunk away from town following Vietnam.
Rather, they have become an entrenched part of the Washington foreign policy elite, unrepentantly continuing to peddle the same philosophy that has been the proximate cause of America’s recent decline, even while leading comfortable lives working at major think tanks, opining for conservative television, significant foreign policy journals and newspapers, and indeed, working for Mitt Romney himself. The only way to square this circle – for them to continue to be taken seriously – is to ferociously defend the indefensible, proclaiming to all that can hear that Iraq was a glorious success and that Afghanistan would have been, if only we had been more serious about the whole thing.
But for Governor Romney the option of adopting such a delusional (if self-serving) argument was very dangerous. Not caring too much about foreign affairs (as is true of most Governors), he does know that by wide margins Americans think both Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth the overwhelming cost in blood and treasure they demanded, and that the sooner America is shod of both, the better. And that domestic political impulse has guided the Obama White House’s policy in both cases (for good or ill) over the past four years.
But if Romney went after Obama over both, he would be immediately challenged as to what he would do instead. The challenger could certainly point to the fact that while leaving Iraq and a soon-to-be-initiated combat withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 have left both countries with something less than stable, pro-American governments, he would leave himself directly open to the neo-con charge. To say, “I’d like to re-fight Iraq and stay on in Afghanistan” would make Romney about as popular as Charles Manson. The dirty secret is that the neo-con agenda is political poison out in the economically pressed country, even if Washington has yet to notice.
Cleverly, Romney avoided the neo-con trap. He agreed with the President that combat troop withdrawal should take place in Afghanistan in 2014. He said nothing about correcting the obvious limitations (in American eyes) of the Maliki government in Baghdad. In short, on substance he did every thing he could to say to the American people, “I am not a neo-con. I will not embroil you in beyond-costly foreign adventures for little strategic gain to prove a point. I am not a warmonger. I am a safe pair of hands.”
This fascinating repudiation of the core philosophy of many of his own senior foreign policy staffers, such as Elliot Abrams and Dan Senor, was fascinating to watch. It made great strategic, political and moral sense. But the Governor did leave a good number of questions unanswered. If he is elected president, will he flip-flop on this vital point, and go along with the neo-cons fighting for control of his foreign policy team? Will the American people put up with such U-turn? What if this moderate, cautious, semi-realist posture is simply the latest incarnation of Mitt Romney, destined to be replaced the minute the election is in the bag? Given that George W. Bush started out as a realist, these are not idle thoughts.
But for today at least, both major presidential candidates ran a mile from the toxic neo-conservative legacy. And that is a very good thing.