Third presidential debate post-mortem

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.


  1. slc1 says

    If one were to read the columns of the likes of Charles Krauthammer and Jennifer Ruben, one would get the impression that President Romney would order the bombers into action against Iran 30 seconds after taking the oath of office. The current position of Romney it appears is that he approves the imposition of sanctions against Iran by the Obama administration except that he would make them even more stringent. What ever happened to bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

    As for Bibi, his main fear at present isn’t Iran but that a reelected President Obama will take a page from the Clinton’s playbook and send the raging Cajun, James Carville, over to Israel to advise the former’s opponents in the upcoming Israeli election campaign. It should not be forgotten that that is exactly what the Clintons did in 1999, which resulted in Bibi’s ouster from office at that time.

  2. The Lorax says

    Apparently Romney also made mention that our Navy was smaller than it was in 1916. Obama had a nice rebuttal, but I don’t think I could have been so kind. Hell, it would have taken my entire 2 minute allotment just to finish laughing at the guy. The Internet is, naturally, loving it.

    I wonder how many folks in the Romney campaign facepalmed when he brought that out.

  3. eric says

    Like the Syria/Iran thing, he’s made that comment before, so it appears to be a statement his campaign actually wants him to make.

  4. jhendrix says

    Sadly it wasn’t much of a debate since Obama is a slightly more moderate Republican when it comes to foreign policy.

    There were some zingers, and Obama got the better of them, so he’s “Winning” in everything but the right wing media, which is trying to spin the debate as unimportant or as Obama being a meanie.

    Looking at right-wing media like Drudge or Fox after the debates where their candidate obviously did poorly, it’s amazing to see the reactions and the spin. At least the left came out and admitted when Obama did poorly (at least on impressions, not on facts) in the first debate.

    I suppose this means that if things hold steady and Obama keeps his edge in the swing states, the crazy outrage from the right will be pretty amazing as reality finally closes in.

  5. baal says

    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?”

    I gave up listening after about an hour. Romney was one endless “yeah what you guys did +1”.

    It wouldn’t happen but I wanted Obama to say, “Well Mitt, we deployed a computer virus that destroyed their uranium enrichment centrifuges. That cost them 2 years. We’ve done more but I can’t discuss those actions in public.”

  6. gshelley says

    Romney was always going to struggle on foreign policy. Form months, his platform has composed of two strategies, firstly to criticise Obama while advocating exactly the same policies and secondly to talk about how much willing he is to send troups in, to Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afganistan and whatever else comes up

  7. slc1 says

    The only problem with that is that it may have been done by Israel, not the US. My suspicion is that it was a collaborative effort between them.

  8. slc1 says

    Lately, it appears that he is rather more cautious in promising to use the US military in the Middle East.

  9. says

    slc1 writes:
    The only problem with that is that it may have been done by Israel, not the US. My suspicion is that it was a collaborative effort between them.

    It had to have US involvement, and I suspect the US was the lead in developing it. My reasoning is here:
    briefly, the “Aurora” attack on power-phase controllers that was used on the Iranian centrifuges was invented by some of my friends at Idaho National Labs. The broad outlines of the technique were published in 2007, which is right about the time the Stuxnet programme was begun. The clincher, to me, is that the attacks on Iran’s centrifuge cascade at Natanz was more subtle than just “blow up the motors” – it involved allowing the centrifuges to appear to run correctly for some time while sampling the wrong part of the gas (clever!) to allow the Iranians to collect contaminated instead of enriched material. To do that, you’d need to test on a real centrifuge of the type the Iranians have – a Pakistani RP-1 – which the US has the world’s main supply of, at Oak Ridge Tn. We got them from the Ghaddafi regime when it agreed to spin down its nuclear ambitions in return for the US’ leaving them alone. (yeah, that worked!)

    Those are some details. There are also rumors. The little birds I’ve discussed Stuxnet with say that it was a US programme, developed locally, but shared with the Mossad in return for details about the layout of the centrifuge cascade. Apparently, Mossad jumped the gun with their own version of the code-base and it got all over the place, which has now gone some distance toward “burning” the entire code-base because now its fingerprints are everywhere.

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