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Election 2012

What Else Is On?

Why the foreign policy debate just can't get at the real differences between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.


There’s a reasonable chance that I might get drummed out of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Community for what I am about to write, but tonight’s third and final debate will not only tell us very little about where the two candidates stand on foreign policy and national security issues — it is largely an exercise in futility. In fact, the country would likely be much better served with a debate on nearly any other topic rather than foreign policy.

Now, of course, this isn’t to say that foreign policy debates don’t matter. America has global responsibilities and crises do emerge that demand the president’s attention. How the two candidates view the world and U.S. interests in it is a topic of real importance. Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that voters will receive much in the way of clarification on those issues.

Rather they’ll get a chance to hear President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney articulate stances on a limited number of foreign policy questions in which their policy positions are remarkably similar.

According to FP blogger Dan Drezner, here are the six issues that will be the topic of discussion tonight:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red Lines – Israel and Iran
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
  • The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World…

On four of these issues, there is little daylight between Romney and Obama. For example, in his recent speech at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney said that he will pursue "a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014…. I will evaluate conditions on the ground and weigh the best advice of our military commanders. And I will affirm that my duty is not to my political prospects, but to the security of the nation."

This is pretty much exactly Obama’s position on Afghanistan. There is little indication that Romney would pursue a markedly different course in regard to troop levels than Obama — and with the existence of the Strategic Partnership Agreement between Washington and Kabul, he won’t have much room to change course even if he wanted to. On Iran, both Romney and Obama believe that Tehran‘s nuclear aspirations must be contained; both believe that crippling sanctions must be maintained; both are willing to consider the use of force (at least rhetorically) and both consider Iran’s nuclear program a serious threat to regional and even global peace.

When it comes to terrorism and the Middle East, both men believe that al Qaeda is a threat (even though there is little evidence that it remains so); both appear to support a counterterrorism program oriented around the use of drones and Special Forces; both believe that the United States should continue to play a leading role in the Middle East; both want to get rid of Assad in Syria but are disinclined to use force and both tend to over-emphasize America’s ability to shape what happens in the region.

On Israel, the debate between the two men seems to be a question of who thinks Israel is a great ally; and who thinks it’s the greatest.

On China, both like to talk about getting tough on Beijing on trade issues, with Romney — as is the case on almost all foreign policy issues — inclined to use more aggressive rhetoric.

Indeed, this is the fundamental public divide between the two men: rhetorical posturing. Obama likes to talk tough (especially about the terrorists he’s killed and the wars he’s ended) but tends to use more measured tones. Romney hypes up the bellicosity in the hopes of differentiating himself from the incumbent president. It’s a familiar pattern; one that challengers have consistently followed on a quadrennial basis and then quickly backed away from once taking office.

Both men in their policy prescriptions on foreign policy tend to hew to the reigning bipartisan consensus that views America as having limitless global obligations, believes alliances that are relics of the Cold War must be maintained, supports a military far larger than necessary, and sees the world as one of potential dangers and challenges to American power.

But differences do exist between the two men beyond the mere rhetorical. Indeed, considering Romney’s often blithe dismissal of diplomacy and talking to enemies like Iran or others it’s clear that he believes certain wrenches in the foreign policy toolbox are less useful than others. And that is potentially concerning when one considers that a president’s foreign policy stewardship is often judged by how they respond to unexpected events.

In fact, let’s forget policy specifics for a moment. Questions that seek to explore the two men’s understanding of the limits of American power; that push them to lay out criteria for the use of force; that ask them what lessons they’ve learned from the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan; that quiz them on the domestic sources of American power; that force them to rigorously describe what most threatens the United States and how they define the country’s national security interests would be quite illuminating would actually highlight substantive and important differences.

If you drill down enough, those real differences do exist — with one candidate clearly believing that there are real limits to American power and that the focus of policymakers should be on the home front; versus another who believes that there are few limits to American military power and that tough talk and military posturing is a critically underused tool in promoting American interests.

But that sort of illumination is unlikely to occur tonight — and rarely does in campaign foreign policy debates. Rather, voters are going to hear the two candidates regurgitate the same set of stale talking points, paeans to American greatness and omnipotence, and only glancing references to their unique worldviews.

And yet even a better foreign policy debate — like the kind that foreign policy wonks like me dream about — won’t have a significant impact on what happens on Election Day.

The fact is that voters simply don’t care about foreign policy this year and it’s an issue that will almost certainly have very little impact on how they cast their ballot. Recent national polling is instructive in this regard. According to the most recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, only 6 percent of voters consider foreign policy and the Middle East the most important national issue; terrorism scores even lower at 1 percent. A CBS/New York Times poll from early in September doesn’t include a single foreign policy topic among the list of issues chosen by voters as most important to them.

It is striking that at a time when voters suggest they are overwhelmingly concerned about a host of issues other than foreign policy, the third and final 90 minute meeting between the two candidates will be dominated by a topic that the electorate is barely interested in and which only tangentially affects their daily lives. A debate devoted exclusively to health care or the future of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would be a far more useful civic exercise.

The reason isn’t only one of voter interest. The reality is that foreign policy just isn’t as important as it used to be. Obviously, crises can emerge and there are important issues to address, but we are living in a time of relative peace and security around the world; the United States faces no serious foreign threats; terrorism, while never a serious challenge, has diminished even further; the chances of getting involved in another overseas war are not non-existent, but they are pretty slim. The world that the United States inhabits is a remarkably safe place with a set of global normative shifts that advance U.S. national interests. Moreover, our ability to affect events in other countries — and the desire of the American people to do so — is far more limited than we like to acknowledge.

Foreign policy and national security questions are still worth asking — after all, foreign policy stewardship is a pretty important part of the job of president. It’s just that in an election in which the divide between the candidates on economic, fiscal, and social issues is so great it’s worth spending a hell of a lot more time on that than on foreign policy.

As my friend and fellow FP columnist Micah Zenko recently noted, "The first point of wisdom in analyzing U.S. foreign policy is to recognize that very little of what happens on the other 91.77 percent of the Earth’s surface has anything to do with the United States. The second is that the ability of any U.S. president to shape, compel, or direct foreign-policy events is both limited and diminishing…. The era of American mastery in world affairs was always a myth and has now all but collapsed." 

Pundits like to bemoan the lack of interest in foreign policy among ordinary Americans — but maybe this election cycle those ordinary Americans might be on to something.

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