What did we learn in the Foreign Policy debate?
Well, let’s set the stage. Governor Romney has been critical of President Obama’s foreign policy on a number of fronts. Of course, there’s his attempt to politicize the attack on the consulate in Benghazi. Of course, that didn’t go so well for him in the second debate. More to the point, Obama destroyed him on the issue, both in terms of the inappropriateness of the political attack and the failed gotcha moment.
But there was more criticism. Obama’s too lenient on Iran and too tough on Israel. He went on an apology tour and the democratic movements in the Mid-East are giving rise to leaders who are popular with their people instead of with the US.
All of these claims are false, save the one about democracy being messy and unpredictable, especially when it comes into being in the wake of the fall of an authoritarian regime. Remember Yugoslavia’s collapse and the ensuing civil wars? Same thing.
So, naturally, we were all expecting a knock-down drag out fight in the foreign policy debate. Instead, we got Romney, getting as close to Obama as possible to stay inside the reach of the President’s rhetorical haymakers.
Now, on one hand, we could say that Romney demonstrated a degree of moderation and sanity. That holds up until you look at the rogue’s gallery of the Bush-era neocons, most clearly personified by John Bolton, that makes up the Romney foreign policy team.
What we really learned was that American foreign policy is one huge ship, and it takes a long time to turn it around. The fact is that we’ve had a continuum of foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. When it comes down to it, Clinton, Bush and Obama have had a continuous policy in terms of substance. While events, personal style and competence (or lack thereof, in the case of Bush) have given definition to the policies of each presidency, the core foreign policy of the nation has been consistent.
This is a good thing. It may be maddening for those who want to see more significant changes happening, but radical change in the foreign policy of a super power is ultimately destabilizing. You don’t want American policy careening between liberal and conservative extremes. That would make Russia and China nervous. You don’t want to make Russia and China nervous.
So what did we see last week? We saw a President with a steady hand and a mastery of the delicate art of foreign policy in an incredibly complex environment being challenged by a lightweight who knows that his criticisms of the President’s policy are unrealistic, little more than bluster and tough talk that he would not be able to back up with action.
Romney knew that his political criticisms of Obama fall flat in the real world. He knew that foreign policy can’t be conducted by sound bite. That’s why he lost that debate, and that’s why he will lose on November 6.