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The Foreign-policy Debate

Published by marco on

The third debate was eons ago, the election is tomorrow and, if we’re very lucky, we’ll never have to hear about Mitt Romney again. Sure, we’ll still be stuck with Obama but, as the Economist so lovingly put it, better the devil you know.

The best way to listen to the foreign-policy debate was the Expanding the Debate Special on Foreign Policy (Democracy Now!), which featured two of the other candidates—Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party—who offered much smarter and less pandering answers than either of the two candidates who have the official stamp of approval. The Transcript of the Third Presidential Debate (NY Times) is also a good place to start, where you can read what the candidates actually said rather than concentrating on how they looked.

One degree of separation

Many of the reactions I read focused on how close Obama and Romney actually are on foreign-policy issues. The article The Foreign Policy Debate: Coke or Pepsi? by Kevin Carson (Antiwar.com) explains that its not just that they agree on the issues—they’re operating from the same basic assumptions about how the world works. These assumptions don’t leave a lot of wiggle room.

“Liberal Democrats, just as much as Republicans, make foreign policy on the assumption stated by Chomsky as ‘America owns the world.’ Obama, as much as Romney, believes the United States bears some sort of messianic obligation to maintain “global security” by determining the outcomes of international disputes, installing “responsible” governments, and deciding who’s allowed to have nukes. Obama, as much as Romney, believes America is the one country whose “defense” capability should be based, not on “legitimate defensive needs,” but on the capability of enforcing its will on the entire rest of the world combined. Obama believes, every bit as much as Madeleine Albright did when she was raining death from the skies over Yugoslavia, that “America is the world’s indispensable nation.””

The “world’s indispensable nation” is a quote from Obama himself. This is not to say that Romney is any better—viewed from the perspective of someone who doesn’t accept American exceptionalism as a God-granted tenet, they’re both far away from the ideal. Romney, however, is adamant that whatever Obama is, he’s two times that—so he’s twice as far from the ideal, by his own admission.

But Romney wouldn’t see it that way, I think. He sees his presidential campaign as a way of granting America the greatest gift of all: his leadership. Romney’s entire life has consisted of him convincing himself that it was his steadfast leadership that was solely responsible for his success. Or, as has been oft-cited of late: he started life on third base and thinks he hit a triple. With Romney, it’s pathological, which is why—even more so than other politicians—you seem him swing from one viewpoint to another, seemingly desperate to just. get. those. votes. Whatever you need, he seems to be saying, just elect me, for f&#k’s sake. The essay Finally Liberated From Facts, Mitt Romney the Pure Bull Artist Takes Flight by Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone) explains how liberating it must finally be for Mitt to just be himself.

“From the start of the first debate, Romney has almost seemed liberated, spouting line after line of breathless, ecstatic inventions – things that are, if not lies exactly, at the very least just simply made up out of thin air, and seemingly on the spot, too. The business about the $25,000 “bucket” of deductions which he prefaced, with seemingly half of America watching, with the phrase, “Let’s pick a number”: awesome. […] Now there’s no more future to worry about and he’s just casting off from his moorings and being what he basically is at heart, which is a salesman and bullshit artist of the highest order.”

Syria and Iran

After a lot of introductory text from both sides, the first interesting statement came from Obama, who took Romney to task for his unquestionably dated foreign-policy statements.

“Governor Romney, […] a few months ago when you were asked, what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia […] And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years. […] you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

Bam! This is a pretty accurate summary of, well, some of Romney’s policies—as explained above, he’s held the exact opposite views as well. Obama’s summary more accurately describes Paul Ryan’s views, which haven’t changed nearly as much as Romney’s. As Romney’s chosen running mate, one has to assume that Romney at least somewhat supports his views.

Obama went on to say that, as regards Syria—where Romney has said repeatedly that he would be much more aggressive—he himself favors a non-military approach, for pragmatic reasons.

“But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step. And we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping, that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region. (Emphasis added.)”

 Map of Middle EastThe emphasized part is the one that should be the most important to Americans: it is of vital concern that we do not succumb to the false syllogism of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Romney, however, wasn’t buying it.

He responded with:

“Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea. It’s the route for them to arm Hezbollah in Lebanon, which threatens, of course, our ally Israel.”

At this point, I stopped the playback and quickly checked Wikipedia to confirm my suspicions. If Syria is so important to Romney’s foreign-policy plans, then why couldn’t he be bothered to look at a map before the debate? Iran has a little something called the Straits of Hormuz that form a massive coastline—something that even Fox News has seen fit to mention dozens of times. They regularly mention it as a threat. Even if Iran were somehow to forget that they have over 1500 miles of coastline, it’s unlikely that they would seek a route to the sea through a country with which they don’t even share a border. Perhaps I’m underestimating those sneaky Iranians in a way that Romney is not. Or perhaps Romney knows nothing of geography.

But neither of them was finished yet with Iran. In a response to the next question about Iran, Obama set out to prove his foreign-policy chops by bragging about how much suffering he caused in that country (without even mentioning the several cyber-war attacks his administration has made in what anyone else would call acts of war).

Obama again:

“We then organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles. (Emphasis added.)”

U.S.A.! U.S.A.! Is there any way to be proud of these accomplishments? That a large and thriving country that has done nothing wrong except get in the way of America’s plans for world domination has been brought to its economic knees? Is this not war already? How can this even be legal? Or supported by Americans? And this is all based on the theory that Iran is trying to get nuclear weapons, a theory that has very little supporting evidence. Even U.S. intelligence agencies regularly report that there is no evidence to support the theory (in 2002, 2007 and again in 2011). The IAEA concurs. All of these authorities are ignored in favor of more saber-rattling and acts of war.

But let Obama explain why we are at war with Iran:

“And the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s [a] threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world. Iran’s a state sponsor of terrorism, and for them to be able to provide nuclear technology to nonstate actors — that’s unacceptable. And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map.

“So the work that we’ve done with respect to sanctions now offers Iran a choice. They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table. (Emphasis added.)”

Well done, Mr. President. You managed to repeat all of the unsubstantiated allegations about the nuclear program and the “wipe Israel off the map” horseshit, all in one breath. And Romney won’t say a word against your lies because he agrees with you 100%. You’re both totally on board with economic warfare that is far more damaging than even actual warfare. You both believe that crap line about wiping Israel off the map—a deliberate mistranslation that has entered canon. You both support keeping the nuclear option open, a terrifying statement from the only country in history to have actually used it. You both emphasize Iran’s support for terrorism, acting as if nothing the U.S. does could be interpreted as such. Iran funds groups in neighboring countries? Terrorism. The U.S. sends military troops halfway around the world to invade other countries? Defending freedom.

Obama seems to be offering Iran an olive branch by suggesting that they can use diplomacy. How? For the last 40 years, diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran have been conducted only through Swiss go-betweens. The U.S. is unwilling to reestablish normal relations, preferring cybar-war, sanctions and the destruction of countless innocent lives to diplomacy.

Those hoping that Romney would show more sense and take the opportunity to distance himself from warmongering were sorely disappointed. Instead, Romney responded that he would do all of that awesome stuff, but times a MILLION.

Read on for Romney’s reaction:

“[…] It’s absolutely the right thing to do to have crippling sanctions.

“Number two, something I would add today is I would tighten those sanctions. I would say that ships that carry Iranian oil can’t come into our ports. […] Not only ships couldn’t, I’d say companies that are moving their oil can’t, people who are trading in their oil can’t. I would tighten those sanctions further.

“Secondly, I’d take on diplomatic isolation efforts. I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world, the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa. (Emphasis added.)”

There’s your choice, folks: the war criminal or the wanna-be war criminal. And has Romney even read the Genocide Convention? You have to actually have killed people in order for it to apply. There are a few other conditions as well, but having killed people is pretty high on the list of requirements. As far as I know, Ahmadinejad hasn’t done that. Hell, when it comes to invading other countries and slaughtering thousands of innocents abroad, he’s an absolute piker compared to any American president. Maybe Romney should have turned up the rhetoric to 11 and said he would indict Obama under the Genocide Convention. That would have gotten some attention.

Romney doubles down

Romney wasn’t finished, though. He continued down his list of right-wing talking points:

“Number two, Mr. President, the reason I call it an apology tour is because you went to the Middle East and you flew to — to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to — to Turkey and Iraq. And — and by way, you skipped Israel, our closest friend in the region, but you went to the other nations. And by the way, they noticed that you skipped Israel.”

Romney seems to be taking Obama to task for visiting allies in the Middle East … what’s the issue again? And is Romney channeling a Jewish mother here? And how many times can he say “[w]e’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran. We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran” without feeling embarrassed? His good friend Bibi Netanyahu warned us all of a nuclear Iran way back in 1992—Bibi can say that we’re 20 years closer to a nuclear Iran. This is technically correct, as time does have a way of proceeding inexorably forward. Iran’s nuclear weapons program? Less so.

Romney still wasn’t finished and made sure to emphasize that he thought the President’s drone-strike program was the bee’s knees and that “we should use any and all means necessary to take out people who pose a threat to us and our friends around the world.” Are Americans so mind-bogglingly brainwashed, so utterly incapable of empathy, that they can’t hear how belligerent that statement is? Ask yourself how you would react to hearing such talk from a state that has declared your country an official enemy. The candidates for U.S. president are saying that they would use “any and all” means, which is a not-too-subtle way of indicating that nuclear weapons are not off the table. This is the very definition of insanity: to pledge attack against a fictitious enemy for fictitious reasons for non-existent benefit.

Romney again:

“Well, I believe that […] drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that entirely and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology and believe that we should continue to use it to continue to go after the people who represent a threat to this nation and to our friends.”

For those playing along at home, “friends” here refers to “Israel”. And again, Romney is totally supportive of the idea that the U.S. can initiate extralegal attacks in any country in the world. And how are these attacks different from 9/11? In the eyes of the countries being attacked, U.S. drones are terrorist attacks. In the eyes of any realistic international justice, any useful definition of the word, they are terrorist attacks. And the U.S. does it with drones, without even having to go to the trouble of training suicide bombers to execute the missions. The drone pilots live in Nevada and Arizona and go home to their families at night to say grace over the meal with which the Good Lord has blessed them. Amen.

Obama was not to be totally outdone by Romney’s swaggering braggadocio. The Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning candidate derided a 2008 statement by Romney, chiding him for being naïve enough to think that the U.S. should respect international law and treaties by clearing any missions with Pakistan before invading:

“When it comes to going after Osama bin Laden, you said, well, any president would make that call. But when you were a candidate in 2008 — as I was — and I said, if I got bin Laden in our sights, I would take that shot, you said we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man, and you said we should ask Pakistan for permission. And if we had asked Pakistan for permission, we would not have gotten him.”

There he goes, the constitutional-law professor, proving the justice of an action by the incontrovertible evidence that it achieved his aims. He wanted bin Laden dead, asking Pakistan first might have soured those plans, ergo a sneak attack was justified. Clearly the U.S. would not object to similar logic applied in the opposite direction. And Mr. Peace Candidate does not even bother to express remorse that bin Laden could not be brought to trial. A bloodthirsty electorate does not care—in fact, Obama would have lost face had he brought Osama to trial instead. The Norwegians’ handling of Brevik was much more laudable, but Americans care only about the myth of justice, not its actual execution. Especially when what’s right gets in the way of what they want.

Six of one…

It was utterly exhausting and somewhat boring: Romney either outright agreed with Obama on most of the foreign policy questions or he first claimed to disagree, then went on to describe a program that sounded exactly like the program either described by or already implemented by Obama. This is only a concern if you actually listen to and understand what Romney is saying—a capacity not many of his supporters have.

Imagine the following conversation:

Obama: I think we should pick option #2
Romney: I completely disagree. I think we should pick the option between #1 and #3.
Obama: ?!?

Now, if your ear isn’t refined enough to detect bullshit, or the topic is too far over your head, or you are just brainwashed to believe everything that Romney says, then, yes, of course you’ll think that Romney disagrees with Obama. You will further believe that you are justified in supporting Romney’s foreign policy while hating Obama’s. That this is not true in no way bothers you.

Obama is not stupid and called Romney out for this during the debate:

“You know, there have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that that would make a difference […]”

Given the choice between two candidates who hold more or less the same opinion, which should you choose? To be safe, you could choose the one who’s less extremely militaristic, just to keep the world safe. At the same time, you would be choosing the one who at least holds those opinions, instead of just parroting them without understanding them. Or you could not choose either one of them and vote for a real anti-war candidate—like Jill Stein or Rocky Anderson.