The conventional wisdom is that Mitt Romney had but one goal in last night’s debate devoted, in significant part, to foreign policy. After all, Romney has no background in the area, looked silly on his foreign trip over the summer, and has a tendency to say stupid things. It’s also an area where President Obama is assumed to have a huge edge. That one goal was to not make a gaffe. And he accomplished it if you read much of the mainstream media, as well as numerous on-line sources. Much of the post-debate commentary has, instead, focused on President Obama’s statement that the military has reduced its reliance on “horses and bayonets.” It was a memorable line, and an obviously rhetorical response to Romney’s comparing our military readiness today with the number of ships the Navy had a century ago.
Before the debate, moderator Bob Schieffer let both campaign know which general topics he would raise. Not surprisingly, the Middle East was to be a major focus. Of course, even if he had not said this, one would expect that Romney’s foreign policy concentration on Israel, Iran and Syria would be much discussed. (After getting burned on his Libya comments twice in recent weeks, it would be surprising if the Republican candidate would jump into that thicket again.) So here is how he explained the importance of Syria for America’s foreign policy:
Syria’s an opportunity for us because Syria plays an important role in the Middle East, particularly right now. Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel. And so seeing Syria remove Assad is a very high priority for us.
There are only three problems with Romney’s statement. The first is that Iran does not border Syria – Iraq, a country that has also been in the news in recent years, is between them. The second is that Iran needs access to the sea only if you don’t consider the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, “seas.” But the biggest problem, of course, is that he is predicating a potentially dangerous intervention on that part of the world on clearly erroneous assumptions.
We are talking about a guy who has twice been a candidate for President, has been running for that office for a good nine years, is reputed to be a data-driven leader, and it appears that he has never looked at a map of the area that has been his primary foreign policy focus? And despite his numerous references to the word “peace” last night, his views before last night strongly suggest that he would not be opposed to yet another war in this part of the world. At least when Gerald Ford “liberated” Poland in his famous debate, war was not a potential consequence of his mistake.
I think the rest of the debate was less than remarkable, unless you consider the astonishing ability of Romney to deny his positions and past history – some would call it lying – to clinch the sale to the American people. He does it with such remarkable ease and fluidity that, in a truly bizarre sense, he appears to be credible. He spent much of the time during the Republican debates by saying he would do “exactly the opposite” of Obama in foreign policy. The statement is asinine , of course, – he would remove Obama’s sanctions on Iran, for example – but saved him from coming up with any actual, you know, policies. Last night, he agreed with almost all of Obama’s policies. The big difference, according to Romney, is that he would be a better leader.
President Obama came across as more focused, articulate and confident – in other words, the opposite of his first debate performance. The worrisome aspect of his candidacy, however, is a continuing inability to do the selling job that comes so naturally to his opponent. In one of his better responses of the night, he answered Romney’s claim that he did not go to Israel during his post-inauguration tour of the Middle East, the stated purpose of which was to reach out to the Muslim world. Obama responded that in his first trip as a candidate in 2008, he met with U.S. troops, and then went to Israel, where he went without taking donors or attending fundraisers. They were shots across Romney’s bow, but done so subtly that one not knowing the context – Romney’s ignoring service people in his convention speech, and using Israel as a vehicle for fundraising in his panned trip abroad – would miss the point.
If you are in one of the so-called battleground states, be prepared for an endless onslaught of ads until election day. The rest of us get a respite from that; we just have to keep our fingers crossed constantly.