Situation Report

A final debate: did foreign policy win?

How to explain Iran sanctions to Iranians. No, cyber-warriors, there is no meeting on “the Hatch Act,” and more.

It was hard for Obama and Romney to stay focused on foreign policy in last night’s debate on foreign policy. Much of the evening focused on domestic economic issues, and even a question on the rise of China elicited responses about jobs, not the PLA.

Overall, the debate pitted a sure-footed president against a Republican rival who was highly critical of the president’s ability to be effective overseas. When Romney and Obama did talk foreign policy, they drew few contrasts. Romney accused Obama of being tentative in Iran, hesitant in Syria, and ineffective in Iraq. Obama said Romney has been inconsistent about many of the same issues, assertively ticking off accomplishments and details about his foreign policy. In the end, Romney largely agreed with Obama about Iran, Afghanistan, and Syria, without defining a different approach.

Obama, on America’s role in the world: "Now Governor Romney has taken a different approach throughout this campaign. You know, both at home and abroad, he has proposed wrong and reckless policies. He’s praised George Bush as good economic steward and Dick Cheney as somebody who shows great wisdom and judgment. And taking us back to those kinds of strategies that got us into this mess are not the way that we are going to maintain leadership in the 21st century."

Romney, on America’s role: "We want to end those conflicts to the extent humanly possible. But in order to be able to fulfill our role in the world, America must be strong. America must lead…. And for that to happen, we have to strengthen our economy here at home…. And our military — we’ve got to strengthen our military long-term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. We — we make decisions today in a military that — that will confront challenges we can’t imagine."

Romney, on the military: "Our Navy is older — excuse me — our Navy is smaller now than any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now down to 285. We’re headed down to the — to the low 200s if we go through with sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me. I want to make sure that we have the ships that are required by our Navy. Our Air Force is older and smaller than any time since it was founded in 1947. We’ve changed for the first time since FDR. We — since FDR we had the — we’ve always had the strategy of saying we could fight in two conflicts at once. Now we’re changing to one conflict."

Department of Zingers, Advantage Obama: "But 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 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."

Department of Retweets: Horses & Bayonettes @horsebayonette. I can run fast and stab things. Put me in, coach!

FP’s Rosa Brooks asks on Twitter: "Army has a lot of bayonets, actually… 1 per rifle, yes?"

An unscientific NBC Politics poll of about 50,000 people showed that 26 percent say the debate made them more likely to vote for Romney, versus the 53 percent who said they would be more likely to vote for Obama. Twenty-one percent said it didn’t make a difference.

The Republicans’ counter spin, paraphrased: "Americans don’t care about foreign policy, they care about the economy, it doesn’t really matter who won the foreign policy debate."

Full transcript of debate:

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We guess it’s OK to say "pivot." Many national security types, both in and out of the building and in and out of uniform, get schooled by strategic communication types about the use of the word "pivot" when it comes to talking about the strategic move (back) to Asia. "Rebalancing," of course, is the preferred way to talk about the move. We get it: the U.S. never left Asia, etc. But last night Obama said "pivot" and many rejoiced. Obama: "And when it comes to our military and Chinese security, part of the reason that we were able to pivot to the Asia-Pacific region after having ended the war in Iraq and transitioning out of Afghanistan, is precisely because this is going to be a massive growth area in the future."

Julian E. Barnes @julianbarnes. Obama says we can use the word pivot. so stop correcting me @PentagonPresSec

No, Stephen Strasburg was not suspended from the Nationals for failing a drug test — nor is there a meeting today on the Hatch Act for Pentagon employees. It’s a cyber-war, stupid — and this is Cyber Security Month. Two e-mails circulating through the Pentagon in recent days suggest some strange things are happening around town. One e-mail an officer forwarded to Situation Report suggests that Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg had tested positive for Methylhexaneamine, used by body builders. "Strasburg and the Nationals organization official public statement is available by clicking here," the e-mail, from "CNN Sports News," says. But when you click on it, it takes you to, surprise! a message about Cyber Security Month. "Don’t be Phished!" the Web site says. Another e-mail announced a meeting for Pentagon employees on "the Hatch Act."

It’s all part of a "phishing" exercise DoD is conducting to determine how effective the Pentagon’s annual "information assurance training" is at highlighting cyber threats for Pentagon employees, explains Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, the Pentagon’s public affairs man on cyber-security. "The week long exercise is being conducted during National Cybersecurity Awareness Month and consists of a series of emails calibrated to match current, real-world events or topics – that are sent at random to OSD staff personnel," he told Situation Report in a not-so-suspicious e-mail. Department officials will collect statistical information about the choices made by DoD personnel throughout the exercise to see where training needs to be emphasized in the future. But Pickart provided this assurance in this age of cyber angst: "No findings or information from the exercise will be shared outside DoD and individual responses will not be divulged."

Want to get Phished? Just click here:

Pentagon Seen: Spotted in the Pentagon with his George Costanza electric wheelchair: a recovering John McHugh, secretary of the Army, still on the mend from a nasty bike accident in Alexandria a few weeks ago.

How does the U.S. explain its sanctions to ordinary Iranians? Iran led to some of the more heated moments between Romney and Obama last night, even if, in the end, there were few substantive contrasts drawn. Sanctions are of course key to U.S. policy toward Iran, crippling its economy and forcing the regime to reckon with its policy decisions regarding its nuclear program. But what are those sanctions making Iranians believe about the U.S.?

Khosrow Semnani, an Iranian-American engineer, worries the U.S. is making a strategic misstep by failing to explain to Iranians just why those sanctions are in place — and who is to blame. Semnani, who recently published a report on the "human toll" of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites, told Situation Report he believes the sanctions are working but fears they are also alienating the Iranian population against the U.S. in a way that will be hard to correct.

"People have to know what sanctions are about," Semnani told Situation Report. "We have to be out there articulating our position, and we’re not."

American officials and analysts agree the U.S. has not done a good job communicating its position to the Iranian people, though it’s unclear exactly what can be done. The U.S. must make a distinction to the Iranian people — to the extent that it can communicate with them at all — that the U.S. doesn’t necessarily oppose Iranian nuclear power, but that it does oppose an Iranian nuclear weapon.

"That is the fundamental message that is constantly muddied," said Juan Zarate, a former deputy national security adviser under Bush 43 and now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Zarate says the U.S. must walk a fine line between trying to take credit for the pressure on the Iranian economy but ensuring the U.S. doesn’t take the blame for the regime’s policy decisions. The issue is even more critical as the sanctions program has broadened from precise sanctions affecting certain sectors to an "economic strangulation campaign" that impacts a much larger swatch of the population, Zarate says. "I’m somewhat sympathetic to the U.S. government because it is very hard to do high-level messaging inside Iran to the Iranian people. At the end of the day, it’s difficult with a regime that has done a very good job of closing off channels of communication."

Some analysts’ knee-jerk response is to say that Iranians blame the regime first-and-foremost. But Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said it’s problematic to make assumptions about what the Iranian people do or do not think and what role messaging has in all of it. The Iranian people, he says, are smart enough to make a distinction between the U.S. and the regime – and can blame both for their problems.

"It’s absolutely true that the Iranian people have a tremendous amount of anger… but I think it is a dangerous and naïve assumption to believe that the Iranian people are only capable of blaming one party," he told Situation Report.

Communicating effectively with Iranians is key. It’s just that the U.S. has forgotten how to do it. Ali Alfoneh, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, says the U.S. needs to begin channeling Cold War-era communication experts to better articulate its policy towards Iran – in Iran.

"So we really need to go to nursing homes, take out American cold warriors who have experience with cultural warfare, and seek their consult," he told Situation Report. "They know what it means to communicate messages to the population in a state in which the U.S. is engaged in silent warfare."


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