Obama was belligerent. Romney played the peacenik. So who won the debate? Our panel of foreign policy experts decides
Heather Hurlburt: ‘Obama scored zinger after zinger’
We heard a lot of talk right after Monday’s foreign policy debate about Mitt Romney passing or not passing the “commander-in-chief test”. That may sound as if it means: can the public imagine him bayoneting Syrian President Assad while riding a horse, or ordering a military strike against Iran. But in the last weeks of a campaign, it means something much more specific.
Romney has had either 18 months or five years, depending how you’re counting, to introduce his commander-in-chief bona fides to the full range of American voters. In the final weeks of a close race, his task was a different one: convincing undecided and middle-of-the road voters, who seem, this cycle, to be disproportionately women, that he is a likeable, moderate guy with solutions to the problems they face.
As I have written elsewhere, polling continues to find that women are less receptive to violence and conflict-based solutions to problems than men. They – as well as moderates – disproportionately prefer Obama’s approach to national security policy. This is why “last night’s” Mitt Romney used the word “peace” so many times, and was so anxious to agree with President Obama’s plans to remove US troops from Afghanistan, refuse to send US troops to Syria and intervene militarily in Iran only as a last resort.
But for this to work, Romney had to do more than hug Obama on substance and find smart-sounding attack lines. He needed to come up with positive alternatives: what is the Middle East policy that will get rid of the murderous Assad, convince Israelis and Palestinians to come to terms and provoke the Arab streets to love us? What should the next administration do about the magical opportunity he invoked in Latin America? What tools are there he can deploy that Obama does not have to convince Iran to drop its nuclear program?
Commentators – and not just Democrats – have been hitting Romney on his lack of substance, since the spring. Bill Kristol, Peggy Noonan, Colin Powell, Danielle Pletka have all at various times suggested that his vague positions lacked seriousness. “Think, Mitt,” Powell pleaded after the “Russia No 1 geopolitical foe” comment.
Romney had a run of misfortunes with his foreign policy outings: missteps on his Europe and Israel trip, criticism over politicization of the VMI speech venue, omission of Afghanistan and veterans from his convention speech. So, to come off seriously and successfully as a moderate, he needed to shut down Obama’s critique of him.
And here he failed. Obama scored zinger after zinger: a decade wants its military policy back – a military of cavalry and bayonets, and on and on. Effective responses were few and far between, which meant Romney was allowing Obama to fire up his own base and sow doubts in Romney’s target audience.
The insta-polls last night, whatever they may say about the race itself, reflected Romney’s failure to move from a candidate with a critique to a leader with bullet-proof, or at least quip-proof, policy alternatives.
The polls showed it; the dial-tests showed it; the pundit analyses showed it. Romney made a full run at Obama’s dominance on national security, and didn’t shake it. It remains to be seen how profound this impact is on the race, but the conventional wisdom about the politics of American national security, marked for three decades by progressives’ fear of conservative dominance and mockery, will never be the same.
Heather Hurlburt is executive director of the National Security Network
James Antle: ‘Romney tried to distance himself from George Bush’
Both candidates were broadly in favor of a US foreign policy that includes or permits preventive war, drone attacks, untrammeled executive surveillance powers and “crippling sanctions” against Iran.
Both insisted no option was off the table in dealing with Iran, a threat they both described in the same terms. Both supported regime change in Libya by US arms and in Egypt – though in the latter case, they would leave it up to the Egyptians themselves.
Neither was specific about what kind of “help” they had in mind for Syrian rebels. Neither was willing to admit their policies might lead to direct American military involvement in the places where they were intervening.
The only time the exchange between President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney genuinely resembled a debate was when it veered off-topic, tackling subjects ranging from tax cuts to school classroom sizes.
Romney uttered cliches about his opponent apologizing for America, while Obama pretended that his successful raid against Osama bin Laden was representative of his track record against al-Qaida more generally.
The most interesting aspect of the debate was Romney trying to distance himself from George W Bush, explicitly saying the country didn’t need another Iraq or Afghanistan war.
The second most interesting was the level of mockery and sarcasm employed by Obama – he once reminded Romney that the military budget wasn’t a game of battleship – which was unusual for an incumbent president. Perhaps Obama’s most effective line, though, was when he said Romney would “do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that will make a difference.”
It stung because it seemed true.
Romney tried to be agreeable and avoid looking like a warmonger. Obama was aggressive and looked somewhat like he thought he was running from behind.
Obama edged out Romney in the second and third debates, but Romney scored a decisive victory in the first. In the end, it appears that Romney has been the net beneficiary, turning this into a competitive race once again. Gallup has the former Massachusetts governor ahead, most swing state polls still suggest the president is the frontrunner.
But there’s no debating, it’s close.
James Antle is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor at the American Spectator
Alex Slater: ‘If anyone took the Bush mantle, it was Obama’
America was deprived of a “rock ‘em, sock ‘em” third presidential debate this election season. Instead, what undecided voters in swing states got last night was a meandering, sometimes slightly argumentative, but largely somniferous discussion between two candidates more interested in mild personal attacks than in substantive foreign policy.
Yes, Obama won the debate: 48% of a scientifically conducted poll with CNN voters confirmed the president’s victory, but only by a relatively small margin. Indeed, 40% believed Governor Romney to be the victor. In an ever-tightening race, this should give Democrats pause.
Romney’s performance was nuanced to a fault. Clearly, his staff had tattooed the words “do no harm” on his arm before he stepped on stage. And clearly, the governor paid attention. Conscious of the tightening polls among female voters, Romney had obviously been briefed to be non-aggressive, to avoid the mantle of warmonger – in short, to avoid becoming the third rail of American politics: the bumbling, warmongering President George W Bush.
But that also exposed him to appear weak, a “yes man” to Obama’s four-year record in office. Indeed, as Mara Liasson, journalist for NPR, pointed out only minutes after the debate, Romney’s most uttered words seemed to be “I agree”.
The president, on the other hand, apart from inexplicably having been told to stare at the governor in what can only be described as a creepy glare, was in a feistier mood. For months now, his campaign has steadily avoided the “go-to” political tactic in the American political narrative: painting your opponent as a flip-flopper, undecided and vacillating on issues.
That restraint was gone last night, as the president repeatedly delivered attack after attack on Romney’s inconsistent record, from troops in Iraq to the surge in Afghanistan. In fact, if anyone took the Bush mantle, it was Obama repeating almost word for word parts of President Bush’s second convention speech:
“I will never shy away from defending America.”
So, where does this leave the campaign in these closing weeks? Yes, Obama won tonight, but these debates have been lackluster at best. On the whole, the three match-ups can likely be called an overall draw, with the first debate propelling what the press is now calling “Mittmentum”. Nevertheless, the political calculus remains firmly in the president’s favor, with Ohio – this election’s pivotal state – looking likely to swing Obama’s way.
If that happens, political scientists across the country will be forced to return to the age-old – and still unresolved – question, “Do debates really matter?” And last night, here in Boca, that seemed doubtful at best.
Alex Slater is a Democratic strategist and principal of the political consultancy Clyde Strategies
Mark Weisbrot: ‘It was a victory just to have drones mentioned’
The presidential debate on foreign policy is always a painful and disgusting spectacle for any reality-based viewer.
Both candidates play into the fantasy that the United States needs to spend more on its military than most of the world combined, because we face grave threats when the rest of the world knows that US foreign and military policy is all about power and empire. But this debate was somewhat less painful than those past because the candidates were forced to recognize that Americans are tired of war and that it was time to “do some nation building here at home,” as President Obama said more than once.
Even Romney had to say, “we don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan.” And both candidates were eager to turn the conversation to domestic policy, which is, of course, what more than 90% of the electorate will base their vote on.
Although Obama tried to blur most distinctions between himself and Romney, there are some significant differences. Most importantly, Romney is more likely to go to war with Iran; this despite the fact that Obama shifted his position (during the debate) to Romney’s position that Iran will have to give up its “nuclear program” (Obama started out saying “nuclear weapons” would not be tolerated). Romney’s assertion that he wants to make “pariahs” of Iranian diplomats reflects a substantive difference – that he is less likely to seek a negotiated solution and more likely to start another disastrous war. Romney was also forced to acknowledge that he would pay for an additional $2tn in military spending with cuts to domestic spending, something most Americans don’t want.
Anti-war organizations petitioned moderator Bob Schieffer to ask a question about drones, and he did. Drones have killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, building a groundswell of hatred against America. The existence of the program is officially classified, and the Obama administration does not publicly acknowledge it, so it was something of a victory just to have it mentioned.
On the technical side, Obama was combative and did very well, as he did in the second debate. If he loses this election – which is not likely, but still possible – it will be due to his failure to confront Romney on an issue that is most important to senior citizens, the only age group where he is losing.
That issue is social security. Both Romney and his party are on the record in favor of cuts to social security, but Obama from the first debate has pretended that there is no difference on this issue. This is an enormous tactical and political blunder.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and president of Just Foreign Policy
Malou Innocent: ‘At last, Romney has adopted a tone of moderation’
At last night’s final presidential debate, Governor Mitt Romney diverged sharply from his empty rhetoric of muscular American leadership. How refreshing.
On the campaign trail, Romney has evoked the bluster and relentless chest-thumping of President Bush. But last night, Romney conveyed an attitude of humility that many war-weary Americans are desperate to hear. In his early opening salvo, he congratulated President Obama for “taking out Osama bin Laden,” and added:
“But we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Indeed, while going after al-Qaida is the right policy, meeting that challenge only militarily won’t resolve the underlying political circumstances that give rise to terrorism.
In another extraordinary turn, Romney said on the subject of getting the Muslim world to reject extremism that “[w]e don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan”. Perhaps Romney’s realist handlers – those who want him to win the presidency – have finally gotten to him: polls show overwhelmingly that Americans think the Iraq war was a mistake, and America paid an enormous price in blood and treasure for an Iraq under considerable Iranian influence. Even many in the GOP have turned against America’s endless wars of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The governor was vague and evasive at times, perhaps to obscure the fact that his substantive differences with Obama were minimal and mainly semantic. For instance, on Syria, Romney’s policy is no different than the incumbent’s. He advocates helping the opposition by working with America’s partners; finding responsible parties and rebels and arming them; working for the creation of a responsible government to replace Bashir al-Assad; and not getting drawn into a military conflict by injecting neither American troops nor a no-fly zone.
On military spending, Romney came across as disjointed and contradictory. After all, if a President Romney intends to spend 4% of America’s GDP on the military – an increase of $2tn over the next ten years – then how will his administration pay for that and close the budget deficit?
Part of the problem is that Romney’s vision appears to be driven by capabilities and tactics (incremental policies to achieve short-term objectives) rather than a clearly articulated strategy (a broad sense of guidance for our actions and decisions). Worse, both Romney and Obama embrace some of the same hawkish and meddlesome national security and surveillance policies adopted under President Bush. In that respect, President Obama’s predecessor – and the pro-interventionist foreign policy establishment in Washington – was the debate’s clear winner.
For all of these flaws, though, Governor Romney’s shift was still remarkable. Juxtaposed with his previous invocations of the American people watching the world and “shaping events”, or having “confidence in our cause” and “resolve in our might”, he appears to have realized Americans are tired after enduring the human and financial costs of two prolonged and deeply unpopular wars. At last, the Romney campaign has adopted a tone of moderation in the final weeks before the election.
Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute
Jim Geraghty: ‘Some will find the president’s diatribe unattractively sarcastic’
In a perfect world, candidates would come to a foreign policy debate with great knowledge, recognition of the complications and difficulties in making the world a better place, and a humility about their ability to foresee events in a rapidly-changing world. Both candidates would recall that President George W Bush campaigned on a pledge for a humble foreign policy in 2000, and President Obama would recognize that promises such as closing Guantánamo Bay turned out to be much harder to keep than he expected.
Around the globe, promises are easier to make than keep. Every presidential challenger paints the incumbent as soft on China; once in office, the economic intertwining of the US and China, and Washington’s quite limited ability to influence the decision-making in Beijing, become clearer. For four straight cycles, Bill Clinton and George W Bush pledged to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; for 16 years, those promises were perpetually delayed. (Of course, this year the issue briefly returned again, as Democrats had a floor fight over a declaration that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.)
Unfortunately, last night’s debate occurred in a far from perfect world. Voters aren’t thinking about foreign policy right now, and both candidates knew it. There aren’t that many undecided voters left, and those that are may not have been watching. The debate was up against Monday Night Football and the seventh game of the baseball playoffs, suggesting viewership would be lower than the preceding two presidential debates.
To the extent undecided voters think about foreign policy at all, they’re quasi-isolationist and poorly informed. The last thing they want to hear is that the world is complicated, or that the US can’t tell other countries to go pound sand.
Finally, while Bob Schieffer seemed to hit the right balance of tough questions without frequent interruptions, the topics were heavily focused on the Middle East. In 90 minutes of debate, there was no discussion of the European Union, its currency and debt crises, and what that could mean for the US economy. No mention of violence on our southern border with Mexico; no mention of India.
Mitt Romney and Barack Obama went into Monday night with dramatically different strategies. The president seemed to think he needed a knockout blow and his base undoubtedly believes he landed one after another, while some will find the president’s “horses and bayonets” and Battleship diatribe remarkably condescending and unattractively sarcastic (the Democratic base undoubtedly believes Mitt Romney is a joke and deserves to be treated as such). The independents and folks who climbed onto the Romney bandwagon since the first debate are unlikely to be persuaded by this sneer, however.
Romney, on the other hand, aimed to look presidential. The result was a remarkably uncombative debate performance. It seems he believed Obama’s last big card to play was that Romney would be a duplicate of George W Bush on issues of war and peace, and so he disarmed it by declaring early on, “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
The word “peace” was used 12 times last night; it was spoken by Romney every time. It was a sales pitch to a war-weary nation – likely to be effective, even if the next four years are rather unlikely to see any genuine, lasting peace.
Jim Geraghty is a contributing editor to the National Review and writes the Campaign Spot blog