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.