The Underwhelming Foreign Policy Debate

Whatever last night’s meeting between Mitt Romney and President Obama was, it wasn’t a debate. A debate requires two people to disagree about something. This had about as much tension and verve as watching two people argue about whether the volume on the TV should be set at 30 or 35. On issue after issue – Afghanistan, Syria, Egypt, and even on Iran — there was more agreement than disagreement.

Could someone explain how Romney and Obama’s policy toward, say, conditional aid for Pakistan is any different? Romney was for sanctions, but tighter; negotiations, but tougher; timelines, but more inclusive. Obama sounded more pro-drone than Romney, but both were fans. Libya had a brief cameo appearance, but other than that, the only times the candidates had harsh disagreements were in their devotions to Keynesian bailout policies for the auto industry or for unrestrained defense pork barrel spending and using the Pentagon as a jobs program. Oh, and I guess Romney was more eager to use the United Nations to indict Ahmadinejad. The brash language of the past year was nowhere to be found, with the exception of China. On balance, Romney accomplished his goal of making it clear he comes in peace. But hey, it’s about time someone had the courage to stand up and say they’re against those things everybody hates

The mind-crushingly dull nature of this debate wasn’t all Mitt Romney’s fault. It’s due to a foreign policy divide on the right that no one wants to talk about publicly. This divide will be exacerbated – with the extremes being the only ones in the public square talking about it – so long as elected leaders and foreign policy intellectuals on the right pretend it doesn’t exist. My concern is that this will allow the divide to become more extreme than it actually is, with the only choice being between Rand Paul and Mike Lee and a handful of GOP Congressmen signing on to Afghan pullouts and saying there should be no sacred cows in the budget, pitted against a massed force of hawks, neoconservatives, and defense industry protectors. The larger philosophical debates on foreign policy and national security have faded into the background on the right, with the dominant Washington policy elite unwilling to have a real debate about morality and methods, China, Europe, or long game concerns, instead sticking to the Middle East conflicts they feel more comfortable defending to the base (because Israel!), and framing the disagreement as a polar opposite choice between the Rons – Reagan and Paul.

Let’s take the heavy use of drones under Obama as just one example where there ought to be a public debate, but there isn’t one either side wishes to acknowledge. There is an abiding dislike for drone usage among progressives, who have a natural distaste for the killing of innocents. But there is skepticism on the right as well, and not just among the civil libertarians. My own problem with them is that they are a bad tactical choice, as Jonah Goldberg noted last night:

@JonahNRO: “Not a great Romney answer on drones. Even from hawkish perspective, there’s a downside politically and also they hamper intel gathering.”

Drone usage, from my perspective, offers heavy political blowback without benefiting us with intel, and Obama’s overuse of them is clearly due to wanting to avoid the sticky moral choices of torture and interrogation. He’s gotten around that by killing a lot of innocent people. Shouldn’t we at least discuss this?

Maybe you think modern voters just don’t care. And many of them don’t. But this is, historically, a newer trend in voter ignorance than you might think—past elections were far more focused on foreign policy, particularly in the first part of the 20th century. Modern voters, who think of themselves as far more globally-minded thanks to that time they liked something Sudan-related on Facebook, should expect more of our presidents when it comes to foreign policy and national security. But they don’t, so we end up with debates like these.

This essay was adapted from The Transom, a daily email newsletter for political and media insiders, collecting news, notes, and thoughts from around the web.

  1. Duane Oyen

    The 2004 election was almost totally about foreign policy.  These things go in cycles depending on where the electorate is and what threats are perceived. 

    In 1940, FDR and Willkie both campaigned on keeping us out of the European war, by 1944, both candidates sounded like bloodthirsty pirates.  Right now, forcing foreign affairs on the US electorate is pushing on a string.  Do we think it ought to be that way?  Of course not.  But we prefer right-to-work laws in Michigan as well.

    Those who ignore history in writing commentary are doomed to repeat it.

  2. John Walker

    Maybe I’m just a nut, and admittedly not a conservative, but I was amazed that Mr Romney had nothing to say about Mr Obama’s overt (and never denied) participation in the preparation of a “kill list” of individuals (including U.S. citizens) to be assassinated by UAV missile attacks.

    How many people might Romney have brought to his side by citing this and saying, “For shame, Mr President”?

  3. Sabrdance

    I said when Obama was elected the first time that -no sooner was he in office than -he was going to start maintaining many of the Bush era policies.  No Permanent Allies, only Permanent Interests constrains our political action too, internationally.

    I would like to have a bit more debate about some of these issues -I too am a little uneasy with the drone strikes because they seem like a way to avoid an issue rather than a solution, for example.  In the interim, though, I don’t find it that disconcerting that reality is forcing Obama and Romney into a particular position.

  4. Chris Johnson

    I don’t think Romney may have brought one single voter over to him from amongst the “undecideds”, with any other tack.  He may have brought a few over taking the tack he chose.

    He certainly wasn’t making any attempt at appealing to conservatives, nor any voters with strong opinions on foreign policy issues.  Yes, it was excruciatingly dull, just as he intended.

  5. AmishDude

    The problem I see with foreign policy is that the Democrats and progressives are such dishonest actors that a coalition can’t be formed.  Essentially, Democrats are against whatever the Republicans are currently for. So even having the discussion splits the Right.

    In addition, conservatives are realists and, absent a general, overriding principle, are perfectly happy to consider foreign policy to be a case-by-case realpolitik situation.

    Islamic extremism is interesting because there are principles at stake, very similar to the Communist threat.  Russia and China (despite being Communist) are much more routine threats.

  6. Dave Roy

    I think it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Given the way the election is going right now, I’m just not sure that last night was the place to have it.

    I do think that Romney let Obama off the hook a few times last night. But at this late date, he needs to worry about attracting as many voters as possible.

    Right now, with the economy as down as it is, that means focusing on the economy and not getting into contentious areas that might let Obama up off the floor.

    I do think that once Romney is elected, it’s a debate that needs to happen.

  7. Joan of Ark La Tex

    I disagree. In terms of tactics, yes, they look rather similar. In terms of strategy, it is day and night. Peace through strength and peace through apology. As of right now, Obama is a Romney “enemy”, he needs to defeat Obama first. 

  8. Valiuth

    I actually like Obama’s “Death From Above” approach. It feels incredibly gratifying to just kill the SOBs and any people around them. I mean if we do grab them, what are we to do with them after we have beaten all the info out of them? We just stash them away at Guantanamo, and if we release them they just go back to fighting us.

    People should fear us, and if you are a Jihadist you should fear going outside. What would be nice is if we could have some deniable way to just kill these people. That way it would be harder to accuse us. 

  9. Devereaux

    Joan gets it. This is an election, not a true policy debate.

    I think we can say that Romney will most likely be a better foreign policy person than Obama has been, but by how much is open to question. Romney is persuadable – he is, after all, a successful businessman. That requires the ability to flex; you won’t get everything you want.

    The question of where US policy should be headed, and how it gets there are both serious discussions, not for this brief and etherial moment but more time-consuming occasions. MUCH thought needs to go into crafting a serious foreign policy, not some haphazard nerve-reaction. Both our friends and our enemies need to understand the acceptable limits – and what might happen to them if they exceed them.

  10. At The Rubicon
    John Walker: Maybe I’m just a nut, and admittedly not a conservative, but I was amazed that Mr Romney had nothing to say about Mr Obama’s overt (and never denied) participation in the preparation of a “kill list” of individuals (including U.S. citizens) to be assassinated by UAV missile attacks.

    He did:  ”We cannot kill our way out of this”

  11. Frozen Chosen

    Last night Romney did the football equivalent of giving the fullback the football up the gut for 3 straight plays – it’s not time to take a knee quite yet but it’s not time to throw passes into the flat either!

    Obama is the one who needs the Hail Mary…

  12. John Walker
    At The Rubicon

    He did:  ”We cannot kill our way out of this”

    You’re right—I stand corrected.  But I would still have been much happier had he explicitly disclaimed assassination strikes against U.S. citizens.  How much would it have cost him to say, “I will never order an attack against a U.S. citizen, at home or abroad, without the due process guaranteed by the U.S. constitution”?

  13. gnarlydad

    Lot’s of great comments. I especially want to highlight what Devereaux said about this being an election, not a policy debate per se. The thing that impressed me about Romney last night was how quickly he’s come up to speed on foreign policy issues…he is a quick study. That’s exciting because he does not bring a progressive tilt to the foreign policy table, unlike the current sitting President. Romney has convinced me that he is, at heart, enough of a conservative, and enough in love with the USA that I can trust him to move our foreign policy in the right direction. Having said that, however, we also need to realize that life in the real world tends to rather constrict the range of viable choices available to a sitting president. That is one of the reasons why last night’s debate seemed a little dull…even Obama, for all his ideological bias, made some right choices, loath though we conservatives may be to admit it. My theory is that doing so has caused him to age prematurely.

  14. Stuart Creque

    It’s not a debate.  It’s round 3 of a prizefight.  Romney used the clinch to neutralize Obama’s foreign policy punches:

    “Governor, your foreign policy is reckless and wrong!”

    “Well, Mr. President, I agree with YOUR foreign policy.”

    “And that’s WRONG!!!  Wait, what?”

  15. Stuart Creque
    John Walker

    At The Rubicon

    He did:  ”We cannot kill our way out of this”

    You’re right—I stand corrected.  But I would still have been much happier had he explicitly disclaimed assassination strikes against U.S. citizens.  How much would it have cost him to say, “I will never order an attack against a U.S. citizen, at home or abroad, without the due process guaranteed by the U.S. constitution”? · 9 minutes ago

    We’d like to hear that and we’d like it to be true — but it would have opened Romney to an attack on the lines of, “So you would have let Anwar Al-Alwaki keep on poisoning Muslims around the world and inciting them to terrorist acts against Americans?  Or would you have sent in troops to Yemen to arrest him?  And how many would you have had to send?  And how many of them would have died in the process?”

    It would have been hypocrisy on the President’s part, but he seems comfortable with that.

  16. Lucy Pevensie
    Joan Greathouse: I disagree. In terms of tactics, yes, they look rather similar. In terms of strategy, it is day and night. Peace through strength and peace through apology. As of right now, Obama is a Romney “enemy”, he needs to defeat Obama first. 

    I agree completely with Joan, here.  I also think that there was a huge difference on Israel, and Romney managed in one sentence to answer the question Obama couldn’t in two minutes: that the greatest strategic threat to the US is a nuclear-armed Iran. 

  17. Prudence Paine

    I too am troubled and frustrated that Republicans have become so frightened of the media and Democratic spin that they now practically refuse to say anything that might include having military action on the table. Romney pressed the case that we want peace, but I didn’t hear forceful emphasis on the “through strength” component. And we see where Obama’s peace through inaction, negotiation with enemies, withdrawals and weakness has gotten us. 

    Right now we’re apparently in “just win the election” mode. But after November 6, conservatives need to quit being so timid. Let’s review our principles and make sure our military and foreign policies abide them.

    For instance, when we introduce a new battlefield technology, it’s up to us to set fair rules of war for it. I don’t like our drone usage for the reasons outlined by Jonah and Ben above, but also in opposition to Valiuth’s take. Do we want other countries/groups believing they can blow up our people with drones indiscriminately? Convince me we do, because my starting point is no.

  18. Duane Oyen

    There are times for red meat and times to shut up and work discreetly in the background. 

    Many commentators here prefer William O. Douglas, for the emotional satisfaction of the frontal assault (similar to the longing for hopelessly unelectable Newt Gingrich to tell off the MSM in debates).  William Brennan stayed out of the newspapers and did infinitely more damage to constitutional government and jurisprudence than did Douglas.

  19. Crow

    Ben: There are still some significant divides between the candidates (one thinks of the role of international institutions in being shaped by/constraining American policy options in each of their views), but you are correct that there has come to be a significant amount of cross-party foreign policy consensus among professionals (liberal internationalists and neocons especially).

    Ben Domenech: It’s due to a foreign policy divide on the right that no one wants to talk about publicly. This divide will be exacerbated – with the extremes being the only ones in the public square talking about it – so long as elected leaders and foreign policy intellectuals on the right pretend it doesn’t exist. 

    Part of the “extremism” of this debate has been the way that positions on both sides get mischaracterized as unconstrained caricatures of themselves by the other side–or, as you say, defined only by their wildest extremes.

    To listen to the rhetoric, it is as though among serious foreign policy thinkers on the Right there are only “isolationists” who want to close down the UN, end NATO, and stop all foreign aid this minute and “neocons” who want to invade every other country this minute.