Terms of Engagement

Last Hope

I know what I'd like Obama to say at the final presidential debate, but I'm not holding my breath.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

"Welcome to the third and final presidential debate. Our topic tonight is foreign policy. First question to you, Mr. President. Your critics say that you have no clear strategy, that you just react to events. Is there an Obama Doctrine? If so, what is it?"

"I killed Osama bin Laden."

"Thank you, Mr. President. Governor Romney, your turn: What’s wrong with the Obama Doctrine?"

"Libya. Libya. Libya."

"Well, I guess that wraps it up for tonight. Vote early and vote often, folks."

That would be a merciful version of Monday, Oct. 22’s upcoming debate on foreign policy. In fact, we should probably feel thankful that Candy Crowley, the moderator of the Oct. 16 town-hall debate earlier this week, did not, as expected, divide the questions equally between foreign and domestic policy. During the few minutes devoted to foreign affairs, both candidates postured shamelessly on getting tough on trade with China, after which Barack Obama won a round on Libya by catching Mitt Romney ("get the transcript…") in a semantic error. But that was fair, because Romney’s objection to Obama’s Libya policy was itself semantic: When did he say "terrorist," and what did he mean when he said it?

Of course, Monday night’s debate will give the candidates a chance to air their differences on Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Russia, and Syria — as well as Libya and China all over again. And some of those differences are real, rather than simply rhetorical. In recent weeks, however, the foreign-policy debate between the two candidates has narrowed down to competing banalities. This tells us something about both men: Obama has very few achievements that he thinks he can safely brag about, while Romney has so few real convictions on the subject, and is so desperately attuned to public opinion, that he’s prepared to latch on to anything, and to stand just about anywhere, in order to undermine his rival.

It’s hard to remember now, but before the economy cratered in the summer and fall of 2008, Obama ran a campaign focused on fundamentally reorienting America’s posture in the world. He spoke of putting aside George W. Bush’s "color-coded politics of fear" in order to embrace a new foreign policy based on opportunity as much as on threat. In his foreign-policy debate with John McCain, he said that America had to make children around the world look toward the United States with hope, as his Kenyan father once did. And so, as he said throughout the 2008 campaign, America would double foreign aid, ban torture, close Guantánamo, and speak a new language of mutual respect for mutual interests. Obama had perhaps the most ambitious foreign-policy agenda of any candidate since John F. Kennedy: reverse nuclear proliferation, stem climate change, repair fragile states, and restore America’s standing in the world.

As president, Obama has chalked up some very real successes. He signed an arms-control treaty with Russia, forged a global coalition to isolate Iran, intervened in Libya to overthrow a hated dictator, and ended America’s military entanglement in Iraq. The world would have been worse absent Obama’s patient and pragmatic internationalism, just as the American economy would be in much worse shape had Obama not authorized $800 billion in stimulus spending and intervened to save the finance and auto industries. But, as Obama has discovered, "It’s better than it would have been" is not an argument that has much pull at the ballot box. And right now, with Syria in flames, Libya in chaos, Iran unbowed, and the "reset" with Russia in tatters, even that argument isn’t easy to make.

The affirmative agenda of 2008 has disappeared. The world has turned out to be vastly more intransigent than Obama thought, or perhaps hoped. He learned, as I wrote two weeks ago, that citizens in the Middle East were waiting for a change in American policy, not a change in American leadership. Afghanistan has proved to be a vast pit of quicksand swallowing up time and attention, not to mention U.S. lives and dollars. And on climate change, nonproliferation, foreign aid, and the trial of terrorist subjects in civilian courts, congressional Republicans threw every obstacle in his path they could lay their hands on.

If the president has changed his hopeful worldview, so has his audience. It’s a truism that voters don’t care about foreign policy, but they also don’t feel good about America’s capacity to make the world a better place. According to the latest Pew Research Center poll, the proportion of Americans who believe that the Arab Spring will turn out well either for Arab peoples or for the United States has plummeted since the heady days of early 2011. Almost two-thirds of respondents say that they want the United States to be less involved than it has been in "Middle East leadership changes" — an unambiguous negative on intervention in Syria. Growing numbers want to see tougher action on Iran and China, while a solid majority favors removing troops from Afghanistan "as soon as possible."

Is it any wonder that when Obama talks about his successes today, you hear almost nothing about the 2008 agenda or even about the New START arms-reduction treaty?

"I killed Osama bin Laden" and "I’m getting out of Afghanistan" speak both to his own diminished expectations and to a very dark public mood. That loss of public hopefulness is itself the most powerful sign of the failure of the promise that Obama once incarnated.

Is this his fault? Maybe yes, in the sense that he raised expectations he could not satisfy. But mostly it’s not, because Obama has been dealt as lousy a hand abroad as he has been at home. He inherited two wars, the Iranian nuclear standoff, and an increasingly assertive China, and he had to contend with an epochal convulsion in the Arab world over which Washington has very little control. Voters are fearful and angry in part because America’s capacity to determine what happens in the world is so plainly dwindling.

And Romney is quite content to exploit that fear and anger. He and his proxies have focused relentlessly on the trivial question of whether Obama ascribed the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to terrorism — though recent news reports have vindicated the White House’s initial judgment that the attack was provoked by a video insulting the Prophet Mohammed rather than being the result of a long-gestating plan. On the far more important question of whether the United States should have intervened in Libya — and whether the White House should use force for humanitarian purposes in the absence of overriding national security goals — Romney has accused the president of acting both too slowly and too precipitately, and once actually ran away from reporters rather than provide a direct answer.

Romney has also tried to score points on Afghanistan, Iran, and Syria, but he is hobbled by the fact that his expressed views are almost identical to those of the president. Instead he fires blanks, loudly insisting that Obama is wrong, weak, irresolute, even where the two fundamentally agree. It’s disingenuous, but apparently effective: The Pew poll found that Obama leads Romney on foreign policy by only 4 points.

Until recently, it seemed obvious that this final debate would give a lift to Obama’s candidacy, if a modest one. That’s no longer obvious at all. Although Obama acquitted himself well in the town-hall debate, it was striking how much of the debate was conducted on Romney’s side of the policy argument, whether the subject was energy or guns or even tax relief. Given the narrowing poll numbers, that may be even starker on Monday. It will be "I made you safer" versus "No, you didn’t."

Yet I have to believe that Obama’s best chance lies instead in widening the lens, talking about how he has adapted American policy to a changing world, used international institutions to magnify U.S. power, and assisted at the very difficult birth pangs of democracy in the Middle East. He can strike a hopeful note without sounding naive.

Maybe I’m giving voters too much credit. Still, the World Series doesn’t start until Wednesday, so I guess I’ll be watching.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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