It’s probably a good thing that most Americans are geography impaired. Many Americans cannot tell you what their neighboring states are, let alone pick out Iran or Syria on a globe. Mitt Romney seems to fall into this category as well, since during yesterday’s presidential debate he came up with the preposterous claim that Iran needed to help Syria so it could have access to the world’s oceans. Maybe he confused the landlocked Afghanistan with Iran. In any event, Iran has plenty of access to the world’s oceans as the southern part of Iran presses up against the Persian Gulf, and it depends on access to it to export most of its oil.
Overall, yesterday’s debate with President Obama did not reflect well on Romney’s grasp of foreign policy. Worse, he could not draw clear distinctions between how his policies would vary from Obama’s. He either tacitly or explicitly agreed with most of Obama’s policies, the inescapable implication being that Obama was doing a good job as commander in chief. Moreover, he drew a lot of false conclusions. For example, he criticized the president for turmoil in the Middle East, as if it was his fault. Even the casual observer of the Middle East understands that revolution, particularly in that part of the world, requires turmoil. It’s an area where democracy is virtually unknown and despots are aplenty. His reasoning is also suspect because it suggests that we can actually control the political process underway across the Middle East. All we can really do is attempt to influence policy by reaching out to leaders, the opposition, and by working with other countries to affect jointly desirable outcomes, such as ending Iran’s nuclear program.
We have tried using force to get our way and it didn’t work in Iraq, although we did squander hundreds of billions of dollars before a wiser president than Bush got us out of Iraq. Sadly, I predict the same will be true in Afghanistan as proved true in Iraq. Yes, we will be out by the end of 2014. Even Romney wants that to occur. But Afghan troops will be no more ready to take control of their country than Iraqi troops were. Afghanistan is likely to look a lot like Iraq in 2015, likely with no clear winner but with a heavy and destabilizing Talibani influence but the government retaining control in most major cities. But we’ll be out of there and most importantly al Qaeda will not be coming back. They will wisely stay out of Afghanistan. The Taliban will not let them back in, as they lost power the last time they let them in. The Taliban knows that as long as they make mischief only within their borders that we will leave them alone. That’s the bottom line in Afghanistan that both sides know we will accept, just not state publicly.
President Obama demonstrated a firm grasp of these nuances, and rightly called Romney out on some of his more absurd statements, like his fretting that our navy had fewer ships than at any time since World War One. Aircraft carriers did not even exist then. One aircraft carrier today is the equivalent of dozens if not hundreds of navy ships in the World War One era. It’s actually much more than that since it allows us to project a large concentration of air power at trouble spots across the world.
Both Obama and Romney found plenty of reasons to talk about domestic policy, since most Americans yawn at foreign policy. As usual, the moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS Newswas caught in the middle and had trouble bringing their focus back to foreign policy. By this point in the campaign there was really nothing that either candidate could state that Americans had not heard before. Instead, the casual listener could only go with gut assessments of the candidate. Obama looked the image of the sober commander in chief he has been. Romney looked again like he was trying to imitate Ronald Reagan, not succeeding very well and seemed a bit trigger happy as well.
The sad fact for Republicans was that the debate was a sure loser for them. Americans overwhelmingly approve of Obama’s foreign policy. We are out of Iraq, and are getting out of Afghanistan. We are war weary, so Romney’s saber rattling fell flat. It was not surprising then that Romney was happy to turn the conversation to domestic policy, where he holds better cards. Overall, Americans see no compelling reason to spend lavishly on defense at this time, particularly when we are entering an era of austerity and the obvious foreign threats against us are diminishing. Moreover, it is astonishing to most of us who pay attention to foreign policy that Russia is our biggest national security threat, as Romney recently asserted. The Cold War is long over. Russia retains an impressive nuclear arsenal but does not appear to have any imperialistic desires at the moment. It has its hands full controlling its own population.
In short, Romney got pwned last night. By the end of the debate it seemed that Romney knew it as well.