The Middle East stole the show at the last debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.
Jim Lobe, last updated: October 23, 2012
Inter Press Service
U.S. strategy in the Greater Middle East, which has dominated foreign policy-making since the 9/11 attacks more than 11 years ago, similarly dominated the third and last debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
The biggest surprise of the debate, which was supposed to be devoted exclusively to foreign policy and national security, was how much Romney agreed with Obama’s approach to the region.
His apparent embrace of the president’s policies appeared consistent with his recent efforts to reassure centrist voters that he is not as far right in his views as his primary campaign or his choice for vice president, Rep. Paul Ryan, would suggest.
The focus on the Greater Middle East, which took up roughly two-thirds of the 90-minute debate, reflected a number of factors in addition to the perception that the region is the main source of threats to U.S. security, a notion that Romney tried hard to foster during the debate.
“It’s partly because all candidates have to pander to Israel’s supporters here in the United States, but also four decades of misconduct have made the U.S. deeply unpopular in much of the Arab and Islamic world,” Stephen Walt, a Harvard international relations professor who blogs on foreignpolicy.com, told IPS.
“Add to that the mess Obama inherited from (George W.) Bush, and you can see why both candidates had to keep talking about the region,” he said.
But the region’s domination in the debate also came largely at the expense of other key regions, countries and global issues – testimony to the degree to which Bush’s legacy, particularly from his first term when neo-conservatives and other hawks ruled the foreign-policy roost, continues to define Washington’s relationship to the world.
Of all the countries cited by the moderator and the two candidates, China was the only one outside the Middle East that evoked any substantial discussion, albeit limited to trade and currency issues.
Romney re-iterated his pledge to label Beijing a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office, while Obama for the first time described Beijing as an “adversary” as well as a “partner” – a reflection of how China-bashing has become a predictable feature of presidential races since the end of the Cold War.
With the exception of one very short reference (by Romney) to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and another to trade with Latin America, Washington’s southern neighbours were completely ignored by the two candidates, as was Canada and all of sub-Saharan Africa, except Somalia and Mali, where Romney charged that “al Qaeda-type individuals” had taken over the northern part of the country.
Not even the long-running financial crisis in the European Union (EU) – arguably, one of the greatest threats to U.S. national security and economic recovery – came up, although Romney warned several times that the U.S. could become “Greece” if it fails to tackle its debt problems.
Similarly, the big emerging democracies, including India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia – all of which have been wooed by the Obama administration – went entirely unmentioned, although at least one commentator, Tanvi Madan, head of the Indian Project at the Brookings Institution, said Indians should “breathe a sigh of relief” over its omission since it signaled a lack of controversy over Washington’s relations with New Delhi.
Another key emerging democracy, Turkey, was mentioned several times, but only in relation to the civil war in Syria.
And climate change or global warming, which has been considered a national-security threat by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Pentagon for almost a decade, was a no-show at the debate.
“There was no serious discussion of climate change, the Euro crisis, the failed drug war, or the long-term strategic consequences of drone wars, cyberwar, and an increasingly ineffective set of global institutions,” noted Walt.
“Neither candidate offered a convincing diagnosis of the challenges we face in a globalised world, or the best way for the U.S. to advance its interests and values in a world it no longer dominates.”
Romney, whose top foreign-policy advisers include key neo-conservatives who were major promoters of Bush’s misadventures in the region, spent much of the debate repeatedly assuring the audience that he would be the un-Bush when it came to foreign policy.
“We don’t want another Iraq,” he said at one point in an apparent endorsement of Obama’s drone strategy. “We don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us.”
“I want to see peace,” he asserted somewhat awkwardly as he began his summation, suggesting that it was a talking point his coaches told him he must impress upon his audience before he left the hall in Boca Raton, Florida.
“Romney clearly decided he needed to head off perceptions of himself as a throwback to George W. Bush-era foreign policy adventurism, repeatedly stressing his desire for a peaceful world,” wrote Greg Sargent, a Washington Post blogger.
So strongly did he affirm most of Obama’s policies that, for those who hadn’t been paying close attention to Romney’s previous stands, the president’s charge that his rival’s foreign policy was “wrong and reckless” must have sounded somewhat puzzling.
As Obama was forced to remind the audience repeatedly, Romney’s positions on these issues have been “all over the map” since he launched his candidacy more than two years ago.
“I found it confusing, because he has spent much of the campaign season in some ways recycling Bush’s foreign policy, and, at least for one night, he seemed to throw the neo-cons under the bus,” said Charles Kupchan, a foreign policy specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Whether it was accepting the withdrawal timetable in Afghanistan, walking back a more aggressive stance on Syria, or basically agreeing with Obama’s approach on Iran, he seems to be stepping away from a lot of the positions he was taking just a few weeks ago,” he noted. “At this point, it’s impossible for voters to actually know what he thinks because he spent most of the campaign embracing a platform that was much further to the right.”
That Obama, who took the offensive from the outset and retained it for the next 90 minutes, won the debate was conceded by virtually all but the most partisan Republican commentators, with some analysts calling the president’s performance as decisive a victory as that which Romney achieved in the first debate earlier this month and which reversed his then-fading fortunes.
A CBS/Knowledge Networks poll of undecided voters taken immediately after the debate found that 53 percent of respondents thought Obama had won; only 23 percent saw Romney as the victor.
Whether that will be sufficient to reverse Romney’s recent gains in the polls – national surveys currently show a virtual tie among likely voters – remains to be seen.
Foreign policy remains a relatively minor issue in the minds of the vast majority of voters concerned mostly about the economy and jobs – one reason why, at every opportunity, Romney tried, with some success, to steer the debate back toward those problems.
Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist who has long trumpeted a hawkish “pro-Israel” line on Mideast policy, recently penned a satirical op-ed calling on Republicans to vote for Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) in the next presidential primary, because—he explained—what Republicans need as a “nominee in 2016 is a man of … glaring disqualifications. Someone so nakedly unacceptable to the overwhelming majority of sane Americans that only the GOP could think of nominating him.” Among the issues that mark Paul as a right-wing crazy, according to Stephens, is his insistence that Vice President Dick Cheney helped manufacture a “war in Iraq” for his friends in business and politics. But, asks Stephens, “Cui bono—to whose benefit? It's the signature question of every conspiracy theorist with an unhinged mind. Cheney. Halliburton. Big Oil. The military-industrial complex. Neocons. 9/11. Soldiers electrocuted in the shower. It all makes perfect sense, doesn't it?”
Jaime Daremblum, a former Costa Rican ambassador to the United States who now works at the neoconservative Hudson Institute, is a vocal proponent of conspiracy theories concerning an alleged Iranian plot to attack the United States in alliance with left-leaning governments in South America. He has been especially alarmist about Venezuela, whose democratically elected government he has described as a "virtual dictatorship," as well as Argentina, whose government he has accused of cooperating with an Iranian coverup of the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
Concerned Women for America (CWA), a Christian Right advocacy group founded to combat the influence of “anti-God” feminists, recently made “support for Israel” one of its core issues. As part of its newfound mission, the group lobbied in support of the Kirk-Menendez “insurance policy” sanctions on Iran, which critics said were designed to scuttle the ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. The group has also drawn controversy in recent years for supporting anti-gay legislation in Russia and for publishing a host of anti-Islamic statements.
Michael Hayden, the former top U.S. intelligence official who presided over the Bush administration's controversial warrantless wiretapping program, has been a staunch defender of the “enhanced interrogation” techniques championed by the Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. When Sen. Diane Feinstein recently argued that a Senate-approved report on the CIA’s torture programs should be publicly released in order to help prevent such practices from being used again, Hayden claimed on Fox News that the senator was showing ”deep emotional feeling” but not objectivity, prompting a sharp backlash from critics who called the remark sexist and inaccurate.
Billionaire investor and GOP super-donor Paul Singer has attracted some positive press lately for his role as a leading Republican funder of gay rights groups, with the Washington Post describing him as "one of the foremost backers of LGBT rights on the right." But Singer is also a leading funder of neoconservative foreign policy outfits—including the American Enterprise Institute and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, among several others—that have promoted U.S. military action against Iran. Singer, who has millions of dollars at stake in the ongoing dispute over Argentina's 2001 debt default, has also directed his largesse toward efforts to link Argentina to Iran, directing millions to right-wing think tanks and politicians that have accused Argentina of abetting an Iranian cover-up of Hezbollah's alleged role in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires.
For media inquiries,
or call 202-234-9382.
April, 15 2014
A recent resolution passed by the European Parliament promoting renewed engagement between Iran and the EU has angered Iran because it scrutinizes Tehran's human rights record and calls on EU diplomats to meet with Iranian dissidents.
April, 13 2014
A new book argues that President Harry Truman, the U.S. president who first recognized the state of Israel, was skeptical of a Jewish-led state, preferring instead a joint Jewish-Arab federation in Palestine.
April, 09 2014
In its report on GOP mega-donor Paul Singer's financial support for gay rights causes, the Washington Post neglected to mention Singer's potentially greater support for hardline neoconservative foreign policy outfits.
April, 07 2014
Although Palestinians have sought to pressure Israel by applying for membership in a host of international organizations, they have so far refrained from joining the International Criminal Court, which would enable them to bring war crimes cases against Israel.
April, 01 2014
Israeli-Palestinian peace talks may serve the interests of political leaders in Washington, Ramallah, and Tel Aviv, but they appear doomed to failure.
March, 31 2014
A recent report by a Brookings scholar recommends passing a congressional authorization for war in the event that Iran abandons nuclear negotiations with the west.
March, 31 2014
The United States appears to have dropped a key Israeli demand that Iran 'confess' to past nuclear weapons research—which Iran has denied conducting—as a condition for a future deal.