I did not watch the debate, preferring to spend a quiet evening reading, but did read the transcript this morning to see what was said and how it compared with my predictions from yesterday. In general, it seemed to have gone pretty much according to that script. You can also read The Guardian‘s entertaining live-blog by Richard Adams.
As expected, there was a lot of agreement by both of them on the basic assumptions of US foreign policy, that it is the right of the US to be the ruler of the world. Obama even went so far as to call the US “the one indispensable nation”. Indispensable for whom? Indispensable for what? And does that mean that all other nations are ‘dispensable’? What does that mean exactly? That kind of bipartisan pandering to the American public’s sense of self-importance is now pretty much standard.
There was the inevitable competition to see who could claim to want to make the military stronger. Obama boasted about how military spending has increased every year in office and Romney wants to spend even more.
As I expected, Romney clearly wanted to avoid Libya but the first question dealt with it so he was forced to address the issue and so he gave some vague words about it and Syria. Obama was able to boast that the US had changed the government of Libya without sending in ground troops. Unexpectedly, Romney brought up the country of Mali twice, perhaps to impress people with his awareness of a topic that has not been much in the news. Romney tried to pre-emptively acknowledge Obama’s killing of Osama bin Laden right at the beginning perhaps hoping to neutralize that issue, but that did not stop Obama from boasting a lot about it later.
As expected Romney brought up Obama ‘apology tour’ but Obama was ready for it. There was barely any mention of Russia and no mention of Vladimir Putin, a prediction that I got wrong. There was talk about increasing exports and the obligatory tough talk on China, with Romney saying once again that ‘on day one’ he will declare China to be a currency manipulator and Obama boasting once again how he prevented the scourge of Chinese tires in the US.
Romney was surprisingly not too bellicose on the Middle East, suddenly seeing the value of non-military options. Perhaps he was trying to ward off being portrayed as a crazy warmonger. He approvingly spoke about the conclusions of a group of Arab scholars that what was needed in the region was economic development, education, gender equality, and the rule of law. He also wants to convene a meeting of groups within Syria to solve that problem.
Syria went as I expected, with assertions that the government of Bashir Assad must go, but with no concrete proposals and no plans for achieving that. Romney tried to tie Syria closely to Iran but tripped when he said that “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” What? Has he looked at a map of the region? Iran does not have even a land border with Syria while it has a long coastline with the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. In fact the very name ‘Persian Gulf’ should have given Romney a clue that Iran has easy sea access. Expect the Obama camp to seize on that as a gaffe, a sign that Romney is clueless. [Update: It turns out that Romney has made this same mistake many times in the past, so it is not a slip of the tongue.]
As expected Iran and Israel featured largely. Iran was mentioned 46 times and Israel 34 times. They both competed to see who loved Israel more dearly and who could inflict more harm on the people of Iran more through sanctions (the phrase ‘crippling sanctions’ was mentioned approvingly seven times). Surprisingly, Benjamin Netanyahu’s name was not dropped even once by either candidate, which must have annoyed him and he is probably sulking. There was zero mention of the Palestinians or the siege of Gaza.
Oddly, Romney keeps saying that after four years of the Obama administration “Iran is 4 years closer to a nuclear weapon.” Well, when four years elapse, you are four years closer to everything that might happen in the future, right? I am now four years closer to retirement than when Obama took office. So what?
As predicted, both candidates support the use of drones to kill people in other countries and there was no discussion of the innocent men, women, and children who have died and what might be the blowback. Romney oddly said that “it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes. And I support that entirely,” because presumably he would not want drone strikes to be done by Boeing 747s.
All the topics that I predicted would not be discussed, because they do not reflect well on the self-image of the US as country of laws and respect for civil liberties, were carefully avoided.
Glenn Greenwald blogged during the debate and was not impressed, concluding:
A primary reason this debate is so awful is because DC media people like Bob Scheiffer have zero interest in challenging any policy that is embraced by both parties, and since most foreign policies are embraced by both parties, he has no interest in challenging most of the issues that are relevant: drones, sanctions, Israel, etc.
That was just a wretched debate, with almost no redeeming qualities. It was substance-free, boring, and suffuse with empty platitudes. Bob Scheiffer’s questions were even more vapid and predictably shallow than they normally are, and one often forgot that he was even there (which was the most pleasant part of the debate.)
One indication that both parties pretty much agree on everything on foreign policy is how they kept pivoting to domestic issues whenever they could, rehashing the same topics they had covered in previous debates.
So there you have it. For a foreign policy debate, there was a surprising amount of talk about domestic issues such as education, class sizes, and teachers. Romney said (twice!) that he “loves teachers”, which must mean that his advisors have told him to suck up to popular institutions like school teachers and not attack Big Bird.