This was, aside from the veep dog fight, theoretically going to be the most interesting of the three debates between President Obama and former Governor Romney ahead of the election. While domestic policy is crucial--particularly this election cycle, where an economic downturn and the recovery, or lack thereof, is both the predominant point of contention and the main wedge issue separating the candidacies aside from social concerns--and town halls are theatrical, it is foreign policy that dreams and nightmares are made of, the all encompassing, real world game of Risk, the stakes inconceivably high and the pressures unbearably heavy as a handful of individuals clash and spin above us, deciding the fates of the entire civilized world. No crucible save 9/11 embodies the sword of Damocles that is foreign policy like the Cuban Missile Crisis, about which President Kennedy had addressed the nation a half century to the day of the debate.
It is against this backdrop that the final debate hit the ground with a wet, solid thwack; a few key quotations and contentious squabbles were there to be gleaned, and the cravat selections were particularly on point, especially moderator Bob Schieffer's, red with diagonal white stripes and blue spines, but standing outside on the sidewalk and awaiting the sporadic lashing rains that were soaking Chicago or taking in the Bears/Lions contest--a true test of Illinois versus Michigan--would have been a more exciting use of time. Both Romney and Obama agree in a general sense on a vast array of foreign policy issues, among them deploying tight economic and diplomatic sanctions to strangle Tehran, handing over control of Afghanistan by 2014 and playing economic hard ball with China. The predominant differences are ones of degrees, and both candidates spent much of the evening feigning and blowing smoke rather than admitting that their positions were quite similar, which would entail admitting that Obama was handling our overseas affairs rather palatably and that Romney was not quite so deficient in policy matters as it would seem.
Despite having very little to differ over, the candidates did their best to drag back what contentions they could onto the blood red floors of Boca Raton.
The main predicament is this one: Romney's political peak came as governor, and as much as the gubernatorial office prepares one for the intricate and unique challenges of serving the executive branch, his idea of foreign policy is New Hampshire and how his overseas investments are faring. The Romney campaign's main weapon and tent pole is his supposed ability to whisk the country away from the precipice of economic disaster and his ability to balance our budget, create more jobs, and run the country like the brutal take over artist he was while serving in the private sector. Unfortunately, the country is not one big business, as so many foolish people would like to believe, and nowhere is this more evident than abroad, where intelligence concerns, military considerations and humanitarian aid take place as well as global trade; simply put, macroeconomics alone will not be enough to steward America through the world. Knowing this, the governor wisely took every opportunity he could to bring up domestic issues, hammering home his snake oil economic plan--no details, no answers, just trust Mitt, he's here to help--and his commitment to a union-less education system--ironic for a man who comes from cars and finds support in coal, two historical union strongholds--as crucial for our geopolitical stature.
This sounds quite reasonable until one considers that a) the austerity measures Mitt is proposing will not work and b) one must be under the assumption that we have lost some influence that we need to gain back. Romney's fears over "tumult" in the Middle East and Iran's "nuclear folly" were paper tigers; Obama had as much to do with whom the Egyptians elected as a butterfly flapping its wings, and the president is already laying down the same kind of economic sanctions that Romney claims he would level at Tehran. Thoughts on the president's foreign policy have regularly oscillated between the GOP painting Obama as too soft, something which looks ludicrous in the wake of bin Laden's killing and Gaddafi's surgical excision, and the pacifist left framing him as a cold hearted killer, a man whose unmanned drone murder fleet is unleashed with too much frequency, too much glee.
Both positions are right, in a way, but they fail because they do not recognize this. Obama is a blue jay, a liberal who falls short of being a war hawk but who is not afraid to utilize the impressive powers at his command to eliminate what he feels to be threats to national security. Perhaps in the wake of the reckless cowboy image of George W. Bush and the staunch anti-war position that liberals took in opposition to his administration, the blue jay is an offensive, difficult to understand creature, one that seems so benign on its surface but then is revealed to be operating one of the most brutally efficient government sanctioned killing machines that humanity has ever known.
Lacking ammunition with which to effectively attack Obama--Romney wisely steered clear of Benghazi after it was used to pull his heart out in Hempstead--and pivoting to domestic concerns at every conceivable moment, the governor allowed the blue jay the perfect place to strike, which he did, with the ferocity of one of his feared drones, if not the accuracy.
Too eager to take the fight to Mitt once again, Obama had some collateral damage during his assault. Most glaring is claiming that Massachusetts's free ride for state institutions, the John and Abigail Adams scholarship program, took place before Romney took office, which it did not. He also implied that he would not have left troops in Iraq when he was in fact seeking to keep a small force there for training and consultation purposes.
These miscues were lost in the blazing strikes that Obama lit governor Romney with and the goodwill bought from finally hedging on his use-war-money-to-fix-America trope--the wars were financed primarily by borrowing; there are few, if any, liquid assets gained by stopping them--by instead mentioning the use of resources returned from the halted conflicts. Obama once again evoked W, making specific reference to his shifting of our focus and might on our actual enemies of 9/11and tying an albatross around the GOP's neck, a gentle reminder of what happened the last time one of them was in office.
More directly, he called Romney's foreign policy statements "all over the map," consistently referred to his positions as "wrong and reckless" and personally attacked him on his former Chinese business dealings, out sourcing investments and lack of experience. He seized on Romney's Russia statements, calling out what he deemed to be a 1980's foreign policy, adding in a 1950's social policy and a 1920's economic policy for good measure before chiding that "I know you have not been in a position to actually execute foreign policy," a statement he delivered in the icy tones of a man who had been on the field and had little respect for someone calling out from the grand stands.
Neither of those two remarks will be the most remembered soundbite, however. That goes to a precision lancing of a floated Romney assault, an effort to paint a shrinking Navy as a sign of weakness and an attempt to rouse the Military-industrial complex, which, ever swallowing, is apt to lash out terrifyingly at any attempt to reduce its blood flow. Upon being confronted with the fact that US war ships were approaching their lowest numbers since 1916, Obama unreeled a counter that will remain etched in political lore for decades to come, one that has already become immortalized and emblazoned across the internet forever.
"I think Governor Romney, maybe, hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works," the blue jay riposted. "You mention the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military has changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships--it's what are our capabilities."
At Soldier Field, an opportunistic Bears defense took advantage of crucial Detroit miscues to surmount the Lions, 13-7. A crumpled, prone Matthew Stafford, a veritable mandrake laced through his face mask after throwing a fatal interception, was the enduring image of the night.