The Final Debate, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Israel

(Update)

The third and final presidential debate of this election cycle was to be about foreign policy, just as the first (and the only other which wasn’t a Town Hall format) was to be about domestic policy. That didn’t really come to pass in earnest, and it also happened that this final debate was pretty flat. I think the main reason for that was the broad agreement that both candidates have on their approach to foreign policy: both love Israel, both fear and want to look tough on Iran, and both think America is the greatest thing to have recently happened to the world. This is obviously a bad position for Romney to find himself in as he attempts to convince us that we need a leadership change, which explains how much the debate pivoted back to the economy in variously clever and tired ways. A few interesting things happened, including a few zingers from Obama, but the tone after the tension of the second debate — and the last one before the election — was one of measured caution.

Opening statements were just what you’d expect: our foreign policy should be aimed at killing bad guys, nurturing our alliances, aiding western countries when possible. But Obama pounced early to put Romney on the defensive:

Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s… I know you haven’t been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you’ve offered an opinion, you’ve been wrong.

That had to hurt, and the ensuing back and forth about progress and strategy in Iraq descended into a he-said she-said that didn’t help anyone.

The first directed topic from moderator Bob Schieffer (of CBS’s Sunday talk show Face the Nation) was, totally unsurprisingly, Syria, wherein we heard Barry declare that “the Syrians are going to have to determine their own future.” Given his eagerness to intervene in Libya after citing human rights concerns, the double standard is pretty glaring. It is true that Syria is a much more densely populated country than Libya and has only about one sixth its oil exports, but Obama still let slip the most significant proximate blocker to military engagement: “our partners in the region, including Israel.”

So let it never be said that Obama and Romney disagree substantially about foreign policy concerns. Common sense dictates as much when one considers Obama’s center-right governance and public avowals of fealty to Israel, and the President even managed to get this line out: “What you just heard Governor Romney said [sic] is he doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing.” Romney bent over backward throughout the debate to emphasize his focus on engendering world peace so that people can “enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war.” Both are realpolitik pragmatists. Romney went on to fairly ingeniously pivot the conversation:

For us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger… We need a strong economy. We need to have as well a strong military. Our military is second to none in the world. We’re blessed with terrific soldiers and extraordinary technology and intelligence. But the idea of a trillion dollars in cuts through sequestration and budget cuts to the military would change that.

Like magic, we’re out of foreign policy and back to the failings of the domestic economy and spending priorities! Admittedly, the military is by design an object of foreign policy (knock on wood), but Romney returned again and again to economic themes, at one point gratuitously recounting his 5-point plan to recharge the economy. I think we we’ve heard plenty enough of that already and wasting time on it during a debate ostensibly about foreign policy should be seen as a slap in the face.

Obama played along with the pivot, probably not too keen to talk about his own foreign policy record (except for bin Laden) and grateful for a distraction. Scheiffer somewhat cleverly forced talk back to the military by way of budgets, and Obama got in the biggest dig of the evening. Romney tried to criticize Obama’s military spending plans to try to differentiate, but his accusation that spending was too low as evidenced by the Navy having fewer ships than at any time since 1917 backfired spectacularly. Here was Obama’s snarky reply:

I think Governor Romney maybe hasn’t spent enough time looking at how our military works. You — you mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets — (laughter) — because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.

Not surprisingly, a meme-hungry viewership has already seized on this exchange, and from both angles:

Talk quickly shifted to Iranian nuclear ambition (and stayed there for a while), allowing Obama to wax boastful of sanctions (emphasis mine):

We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.

And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security.

This should disgust any thinking person. Yes, nuclear weapons are scary and dangerous. But reducing a nation to “a shambles” doesn’t affect its political leaders directly. It affects its citizens in hope that the resulting unrest will be so unpalatable as to force political change. Such an indirect attack that primarily affects the least well-connected and self-sufficient citizens of a country should be seen as a failing of global leadership and a violation of human rights, not a cause for celebration. That a feather in the cap of this approach appears to be the benefit Israel enjoys from it is perverse: given the current paradigm of nation-states largely fending for themselves, does it make sense that we should be in unquestioning lock-step with one half of the biggest source of unrest in the world? And consider the irony of passionately decrying our own economic doldrums while earnestly rejoicing in those of another country. Then add to that the realization that we are the deliberate source of those woes! Hooray?

Obama wasn’t done. Romney, being the insufferable, tone-deaf asshole that he is, once again trotted out the (false) charge that Obama went abroad on an “apology tour” for American behaviour upon assuming office. Obama defended by breaking Godwin’s Law:

You know, if we’re going to talk about trips that we’ve taken, you know, when I was a candidate for office, first trip I took was to visit our troops.

And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn’t take donors, I didn’t attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable.

For the record, this happened after 58 minutes of debate. So close to a full hour without any hyperbolic claims about Nazis. If you ever wonder about the nature of evil, just pop in to the holy land. They’ll give you a tour! I LOVE ISRAEL!!!

Schieffer followed with a fairly interesting if ham-handed question:

SCHIEFFER: What if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: Our bombers are on the way. We’re going to bomb Iran. What do you say?

ROMNEY: Bob, let’s not go into hypotheticals of that nature. Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action.

Sure, let’s debate foreign policy but not consider objectively probing and scarily realistic hypotheticals! We’ll trust y’all bros that you’ll work shit out long before it comes to airborne munitions announced minutes before deployment. Thanks for pushing back there, Bob!

Romney was good for a few more whoppers. He reiterated his claim that he’ll label China a ‘currency manipulator’ on day one of his administration. This name-calling is supposed to aid Congressional action to curb the nasty behaviour of Romney’s hated enemy state. But what might he have called the Federal Reserve if pressed, especially now during QE3?  And Romney repeated the ridiculous claim that he loves Detroit and “would do nothing to hurt the U.S. auto industry.” Except, maybe, write an op-ed calling for its bankruptcy (see my review of the second debate for the duplicity of this position) which led to a back and forth itself later on.

But Obama was guilty of the worst rhetorical abuse of the evening. He waxed solemn about his august duty to ice fools without due process:

You know, after we killed bin Laden, I was at Ground Zero for a memorial and talked to a young woman who was 4 years old when 9/11 happened.

And the last conversation she had with her father was him calling from the twin towers, saying, ‘Peyton, I love you, and I will always watch over you.’ And for the next decade she was haunted by that conversation. And she said to me, ‘you know, by finally getting bin Laden, that brought some closure to me.’

And when we do things like that, when we bring those who have harmed us to justice, that sends a message to the world, and it tells Peyton that we did not forget her father.

Apparently, the Decider-in-Chief justifies violating his duty to uphold laws of the land by pointing out that one young American teenager got off on the public murder of a widely reviled accused criminal. It’s important to reinforce time-honoured traditions like ‘Might Makes Right’ and ‘An Eye for an Eye’, and if you have to ignore a few things, like the fifth amendment, so be it, because hey! here’s a girl who never knew her father but felt “haunted” by something he said to her when she was four. Don’t you feel patriotic? I guess Bob did when he replied with “All right.”

So, conclusions? Pundits noted the broad agreement on policy I noted myself earlier. Obama won: he had a record to talk about and he got away with several attacks undermining Romney’s credibility to be Commander-in-Chief. Both were content to bring up the economy orthogonally to foreign policy issues, which they both did in their closing statements, but I think Obama won here too since the economy is much better now than it was this time four years ago under a republican. I was quite disappointed but hardly surprised that the Drone War wasn’t discussed at all except when Romney fleeting mentioned it to say he agreed with their use. The debate was flat and bipartisan consensus remains steeled, even if Scheiffer called it “very vigorous”. I don’t think a single mind was changed. What a worthwhile exercise!

And the debates are over (for the rest of year at least, as Bob Scheiffer told us; we can all stop talking now!), and what have we learned? Near as I can tell from this variously uninspired and offensive ritual, there’s a pair of a doofuses — and only a pair; please ignore every other party’s candidate — running for the highest office in the world that people are for some reason taking seriously. One of them has said so many fool things that he’ll never win. The other one killed Osama bin Laden and you’d better not forget it! Also they both have a lot more money than you have, but they really care about you. So vote for one of them because it really matters!

(Update)

I missed one of the better flubs from Romney: “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” This seems to be a pretty dumb thing to say. Iran controls the Strait of Hormuz, through which a large quantity of traded oil passes and which has figured in the news lately due to the grandstanding over Iran’s nuclear program and those international sanctions Obama so loves. Also, apropos those sanctions imposed largely by western counties, how valuable is the (Mediterranean) sea to Iran, especially given that they’d need to haul goods over most of Iran and Turkey to reach Syria without entering Iraq? Answer: not very. Romney should have known better.

But what’s remarkable about this is that he didn’t actually flub it that night. As the democracy-defending Washington Post reported, despite trying ‘ever so hard’ to disabuse him of the fallacy, Romney’s been parroting this geographical embarrassment since at least February. This guy insists, in the face of criticism, that his claim has merit. Olympus help us, not because Romney will win, but because ostensibly seriously journalists take him seriously even after affirmatively dispelling such transparently insubstantial rhetoric. I heard about this not from the mainstream media but from a facebook infographic. Ew.

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