Caitlin Howarth

human security + tech + politics

Organizer, writer, analyst and politics/policy pro. I work on the human rights, security and tech that empowers progressive change around the world.

Who Won the Foreign Policy Debate: Obama or Romney?

(Watch the debate, check out highlights, read the transcript and see the fact check: all here.)

The final Presidential Debate debate, moderated by veteran Bob Schieffer, focused on foreign policy — a topic the sitting president usually retains a strong advantage in over challengers. At Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, President Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney jabbed and weaved as expected.

Unlike Romney, Obama’s political ascendancy on the national stage has always been marked by his stance on major foreign policy and national security issues. His stance against the Iraq invasion and commitment to end it was a touchstone topic for his first administration, as was making a successful pivot to Afghanistan before initiating a draw-down there. Romney’s primary achievement in the international community was his successful turnaround of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, an accomplishment with the dual disadvantage of reminding voters about his Mormon faith (a touchy topic that hasn’t played a significant role on the campaign, to the relief of many) and his recent diplomatic facepalm by suggesting that Britain wasn’t prepared to secure the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London.

“Spoiler alert: We got bin Laden.” The president’s joke at the annual Catholic Charities gala bluntly pointed to what many consider the biggest single indicator that this administration has outperformed 8 years of post-9/11 Republican military strategy: by taking out the most wanted terrorist in the world. But while conservative commentators twist themselves into knots trying to push back on this fact, progressives may push forward on other issues – not least of which include the White House’s crackdown on leakers (by cracking down on the journalist who use them), the high-profile drone attacks that have become a cornerstone of Pentagon tactics, and insufficient action in response to mass atrocities ongoing in Syria and Sudan.

Not that this is the sum total of the administration’s foreign policy — far from it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has projected a three-pillared strategy that emphasizes development alongside diplomacy and defense, producing a significant shift not only for the State Department, but a signal that this is a paradigm-changing administration. Incorporating mass atrocity response and prevention planning into military doctrine and elevating its position internally has also produced a noticeable shift in atmosphere; the Responsibility to Protect that has so often been treated as a luxury is beginning to move more consistently within multiple branches of the massive system that coordinates intelligence, development, defense and diplomacy.

And make no mistake — this all matters. The world is waiting impatiently for the U.S.’s elections to commence — and with what degree of popular mandate for the winner – to see how the future of trade, conflict, and more will fare in the next four years. For those watching Syria, as I have been, Brahmini’s proposed ceasefire may seem like only a momentary pause as Assad, his allies, and the rebel groups and their supporters jostle for position before a new White House policy takes firmer shape. A strong win for the President would give him more latitude for action, although Washington’s tale of woe about overstretched resources is no campaign ploy; with sequestration looming and defense budget cuts already producing mergers as major contractors anticipate changes, any new commitments will be as lean as possible – or come not at all.

A Nuclear Iran: Governor Romney’s opening statement made clear which threat he considers paramount: a nuclear Iran. Assuming that the Iranians move forward undetected in a ‘sprint to the bomb’ as Israel’s dire warnings predict – an assumption many American officials consider unlikely and which has been repeatedly undermined by the release of keyhole satellite imagery showing the steps of Iran’s nuclear development, which many think will be unlikely to proceed without detection (remote or otherwise) – there is still no clear answer from the Romney camp on how this story ends. The Governor made it equally clear that large-scale military intervention was not the way to go in the region; his statement, which perhaps unconsciously called on American ‘hearts and minds’, focused on the importance of economic development and robust foreign aid that would support education, civil society and gender equality in the Middle East. Despite the fact that Secretary Clinton has elevated foreign aid and development as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy rather than the second-class status it held in previous administrations (see above), a position that earned plenty of scorn from those who think that foreign aid is 21 percent of the U.S. budget (it’s actually 1 percent; 21 percent is closer to the U.S. defense budget), Romney wasn’t wrong that a combination of hard and smart power projection is what’s needed. He’s simply wrong if he thinks that’s a reversal of current U.S. policy.

Wondering how a military intervention in Iran would go? The Truman National Security Project (disclosure: a left-leaning organization that I’m a member of) recently put together a game that lets you explore your options.

Wondering where the money goes? A breakdown of the FY 2013 budget for the Department of State and US Agency for International Development shows that these smart power investments total $51.6 billion and make up 1 percent of the U.S. Government’s overall budget. Money that goes back to voters in the form of social safety nets Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security makes up the majority of the federal budget.

Zinger: Obama packed a lot into his pushback on Romney’s position, noting that his previous statements on the top foreign policy priority focused on Russia, not terrorism or a nuclear Iran. “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years,” Obama said. I’m guessing at least one Romney campaign staffer responded like this backstage.

Syria: The question of intervention in the Syrian civil war is a delicate one at best – and one where the U.S. is clearly in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ position within the region. To say that the outcome of the conflict depends on the U.S. election is an overstatement, but it is true that the international community, including major allies like Turkey and Jordan who are absorbing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, is expected to move much more quickly and decisively overall after November 6th. [Note: Turkey just passed the 100,000 refugee mark and that number is expected to double by January 1, according to a recent UN OCHA report; that kind of pressure combined with the stress of protecting refugees in tents under harsh winter conditions is a top priority to the leading NATO member engaged on the crisis.]

Pushback: While the President emphasized reluctance to arm Syrian rebels, he did order an intelligence “finding” that authorized covert support - although it is not clear where, to whom and how that support is provided. For what it’s worth, some of Syria’s more radical Islamist rebels say they haven’t seen evidence of U.S. support on the ground, according to a recent in-depth report by veteran reporter Jon Lee Anderson for The New Yorker.

Update: Last Tuesday, hopes for a ceasefire during the high holiday of Eid look “weak” according to an Arab League official cited by Reuters. Eid begins on Friday, Oct 26 and lasts for 4 days.

Zinger: Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran @danfutrell asks: “Romney wants to intervene in Syria, but doesn’t want our military involved? What, does he want Assad to self-deport?” Unlikely, but it would be really nice if he did. (More likely: Assad repeats his father’s leveling of Hama, but on a national scale using air strikes.)

Arab Spring: One of the troubling falsehoods perpetuated in the debate was the notion that the Arab Spring ‘exploded’ into violence and chaos – which simply isn’t true. The massive demonstrations, coordinated leadership of non-violent protestors, and civic response to core needs – including neighborhood security and sanitation – were all emblematic of years of training, organizing, and networking across communities of activists over several years. That the long-simmering unrest exploded in the American media is certainly true, but isn’t a fair way to characterize the Arab Spring itself. And as many of those activists were trained and supported through programs funded by US-based organizations and foundations – which has led to a serious crackdown on such support within Egypt and Russia - the facts belie the perception promoted by Romney last night as he suggested that the U.S. wasn’t supportive enough pre-Spring. That the events in the street took place as they did, with no question of their authenticity or resolve, is a testament to how well civil society support for democracy can function. What today’s events show is that civil society needs to grow more (without being choked off by lack of funds) and that Egypt’s revolution didn’t result in its youthful leaders assuming power directly. There’s still work to be done, and stronger government presence in U.S.-based pro-democracy efforts would actually undermine the progress that’s been made; when it comes to building civil society, that effort is best led by civilians themselves for their own societies.

Budget: This is where the ‘red-lines’ got drawn – and where Romney stated that he’d pay for a bigger military by cutting health care programs. ‘Obamacare,’ he said, “Doesn’t sound good and it’s not affordable, so I get rid of that one from day one.” I don’t know what poll showed that Americans want to pay for more destroyers but not prescription medications; I do know that if you simply poll for ‘dog whistle’ words like ‘Obamacare,’ you can skew your results. At least Romney was honest that the reason he’d repeal massive improvements in the health care system, including universal coverage for children, is because he thinks Obamacare “doesn’t sound good.”

China: I’d like to write something more informative here, but in all honesty when I read the transcript of this part of the debate – especially the bit about the auto industry – the debate started to take the form of a slap-fight. Romney’s challenge to voters looking at his record came across with the same tone as Kirsten Dunst in ‘Bring It On,’ – and again, that’s just from reading the transcript.

General Consensus: The post-debate news cycle seems to have built consensus that this was a strong debate for the President but not the knock-out punch Democrats were looking for, especially as recent polls have put the the candidates in a dead tie going into the debate. Mitt Romney making lists of things as evidence of his policy prowess may have annoyed some but probably did what he needed to do – namely, prove that he knew something and issue a host of dog whistle keywords. As most campaign strategists will tell you, it’s not what you say that actually matters – it’s how you say it. And as I read the transcript and watched film, I was reminded of an important disadvantage for the President – he has to toe a very careful diplomatic line and not say things inconsistent with the delicate calibrations of his administration’s current policy. Romney can say just about anything he wants, since he doesn’t have to live with the consequences (at least, not yet). Bottom line for next-day reviews like mind: watch tape and read the commentary, you don’t get the whole story from words alone.

Last Word: Bob Schieffer called it right with a quote from his mom: “Go vote. It makes you feel big and strong.” See you at the polls on Tuesday, Nov 6.

This article originally appeared in PolicyMic

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