My take on last night’s presidential debate: Ron Paul won.
Of the long list of contenders in this long campaign season, the GOP congressman from Texas more than any other has argued for ending America’s military engagements around the world, dropping foreign aid, and defending U.S. borders as the sum total of foreign policy—in short, isolationism.
In a 90-minute debate at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., that focused on foreign policy, President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney both borrowed from Paul’s isolationist bent and stridency, while lacking the Republican renegade’s coherence. Both tried to show they understood America’s place in the world but seemed captive to U.S. polls showing most voters lack interest in international relations.
That left viewers befuddled as the two candidates seemed to agree on more than they disagreed on. They agreed that a NATO-led intervention in Libya was the right thing to do (while not right for Syria). They agreed that tightening sanctions on Iran was the best way to end its nuclear program. They agreed that Pakistan must remain a key ally while also agreeing to continue clandestine drone strikes in the region. They agreed to the 2014 timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Departing from a tendency toward pullback, they agreed, in Gov. Romney’s words, that the United States “had to go in” to Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden.
Obama and Romney also seemed to agree on what not to talk about, especially recent debacles the pundits expected the Republican challenger to raise that go directly to Obama’s conduct of foreign policy. Romney did not address—despite repeated references to Libya—the administration’s failure to finger the specific militant groups the CIA and State Department received warnings about that planned the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens in September. Romney also failed to bring up the security breakdown in Afghanistan that has led to more than 50 “insider killings” of U.S. military personnel this year.
Left untouched were some of the most pressing subjects involving national security and U.S. standing in a global economy: the state of homeland security, the fate of incarcerated terrorists at Guantanamo and in the United States, the deepening drug war at the U.S.-Mexico border, or the impending breakup of the eurozone. Most disheartening is that more than a decade after 9/11, neither candidate could articulate the jihadist threat emanating from radical Islamic teaching, though Romney attempted it in faltering references to “the Muslim world,” and both cited the Middle East as the place where greatest threats to the United States lie.
Where the two sparred most was in bringing the debate around to U.S. economic policy, and the U.S.-China relationship. But neither articulated their positions well enough for listeners to comprehend those differences. Obama labeled China “an adversary but also a potential partner.” Romney too said “we can partner with China” but promised new tariffs over its currency manipulation “on day one” of his taking office.
That sort of muddled bickering typified the night. On Syria, the candidates agreed that President Bashar al-Assad must go but could not say, more than a year into the conflict, how that might happen. Obama said, “Syrians are going to have to determine their own future,” a prospect plainly impossible with nearly all Syrians caught between a deadly president unwilling to step down and a rebel force unwilling to forego outside support and weapons from terrorists.
Romney called the Syrian civil war “an opportunity” for the United States, but then denounced any U.S. military involvement in the conflict, including imposing a no-fly zone—something leading Republicans in Congress have been calling on the president to do.
The greatest contrasts of the evening were struck in tone. Romney in several moments sounded presidential, able to articulate a wider philosophy of America’s place in the world. (“… the mantle of—of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it, but it’s an honor that we have it.”) Obama, on the other hand, played more challenger than incumbent, attacking Romney as though he had been commander-in-chief the last four years.
But for most of the evening the level of debate so devolved that leading commentators were left sparring via Twitter about the history of bayonets. That followed a comment from Obama that the United States has “fewer horses and bayonets” after Romney noted we have fewer ships than we had in 1916.
Others concluded, as did Foreign Policy magazine managing editor Blake Hounshell, “Both candidates came prepared tonight with binders full of boring.”