Romney and Obama at the 2nd presidential debate

The “debate” or political show tonight put on by the anti-democratic Commission on Presidential Debates will serve a key purpose: it will help to create the illusion in Americans’ minds that there is a wide difference between President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney when it comes to foreign policy.

Bob Schieffer, host of “Face the Nation” and moderator, will serve the interests of the two presidential campaigns by assisting in the fabrication of additional differences. Pundits and the public will take the moment to fixate on these new “differences” brought to the fore—differences that can be considered alongside the few actual differences, which are mostly managerial or stylistic.

Julian E. Barnes for the Wall Street Journal wrote today, “On closer inspection, their differences don’t seem nearly as steep. Both favor tougher sanctions, international isolation and military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The sharpest distinctions are those of style and rhetoric.”

Writing for the New York Times in July, Peter Baker argued, “Once the incendiary flourishes are stripped away, the actual foreign policy differences between the two seem more a matter of degree and tone than the articulation of a profound debate about the course of America in the world today.” PJ Crowley, former State Department spokesperson, said, “Iraq has taken off the table the most profound foreign policy differences. There’s more continuity in foreign policy than people realize.” The same month Marvin Kalb of the establishment think tank, the Brookings Institution, concluded, “It may come as a surprise, given the daily drumbeat of political charge and counter-charge, but it is my impression at this stage of the presidential campaign that the positions of the two candidates have begun to overlap on major foreign policy problems.”

On Topics That Will Be Raised, Only Minor Differences

Schieffer is likely to ask the candidates about Iran, Syria, Israel, Afghanistan and China. Baker contended in the above mentioned article:

…They both would press the battle against Al Qaeda through drones and special operations while drawing down troops in Afghanistan. They both would try to stop Iran’s nuclear program through sanctions and negotiations without ruling out a military option. They both would support rebels in Syria while keeping American forces out of the conflict. Even in areas where Mr. Romney has been most critical, like Israel, Russia and China, it is not entirely clear what he would do differently…

Both accept the 2014 deadline for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan, which the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “confirmed unanimously” in May 2012.  Both support a policy of escalating UN-approved sanctions against Iran. Both support a policy of assisting rebels in Syria in some way but without weapons or US military intervention. Both would maintain support for Israel and Israeli-Palestinian talks would likely remain static.

The difference over China is limited to the extent to which Romney plans to incorporate bravado into his rhetoric. Romney wants to label China a “currency manipulator.” The labeling does not mean a different policy would follow. (And, in fact, both candidates have recently been bashing China because they believe it resonates with the American people.)

The two candidates disagree on the number of troops or “residual force” that should be left in Afghanistan after 2014. Neither suggests they all should be removed so the war could actually be over once and for all.

Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs and co-author of The Israel Lobby, recently suggested on NPR the two candidates are both committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. They both are unlikely to make a push for “negotiations” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They both may talk tough on China but neither will want to start a “trade war.”

Pundits and advisors of the campaigns argue they have different visions for American foreign policy. That may be true. The neoconservative advisors populating Romney’s re-election campaign have links to the Project for the New American Century, which influenced President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. The words “American Century” appear on Romney’s foreign policy page on his website and bolster the argument that Romney would bring cowboy diplomacy back to the White House. But, cockiness would not make policies different (and could end up revealing more truths about American empire like Bush’s presidency did).

Both candidates believe in the goodness of projecting American power. They believe America is that beacon on the hill. Rhetorically, Obama may use fewer jingoistic words. But, both view the leadership, experience, strength and agility of the United States as critical to keeping the world turning peacefully.

Debating Interventionism

The Benghazi attack is certain to come up in the debate tonight. However, there will be no questioning of the policy of intervention, which should be what candidates are forced to address when talking Libya.

If America were a democratic republic without a corrupt organization controlling parts of the electoral process, Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson would be included in the debate. They are both on a majority of state ballots in the country. They both reject the popular policy of interventionism in foreign policy.

In a debate held by the Independent Voter Network on October 19, Johnson and Stein squared off and addressed whether the US should take unilateral action in Syria and launch an intervention to stop the humanitarian crisis.

DR. JILL STEIN – You know, we’re seeing blowback in Libya now. You know, where some of the groups that came into power were armed by us. The interventions breed very unpredictable and violent results. It’s clear now in Syria for example, that many of the arms flowing into Syria, are flowing into the hands of groups that are our sworn enemies. When you depose one government violently, and put weapons of violence into the hands of whoever, you know, that this is not a solution. That this is not what peace and security looks like. We’ve been taught over the last ten years with trillions of dollars spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, which are additional cases and point. Where it was so intensively argued by Democrats and Republicans and the media that there was compelling need for intervention, yet look where we’ve gone. Even in Afghanistan where the strongest case was made that we had to go in and deal with al-Qaeda, we have a mess on our hands. We find ourselves in exactly the same position that the Russians were in a couple decades ago. This is a very dangerous territory to get into. Unilateral intervention in areas we don’t belong and where we don’t have good understanding of the culture and what’s going on. We don’t have trusting relationships with the people. This is an argument made, fundamentally by the weapons industry, which would love to keep selling more arms, which in fact is profiting from the sale of arms into every hotspot around the world. This is basically pouring gasoline on the fires of religious, ethnic, and national conflict around the world. We should not be entering into such conflicts unilaterally, unless there are unique circumstances, which we have not seen in decades…

…GOV. GARY JOHNSON – I do not think that we should intervene militarily. There are no real humanitarian wars that we should engage ourselves in. Now as Governor of New Mexico and in my life I’ve learned to never say never. I don’t think that any of us want to sit by and watch some holocaust or some atrocities going down. I’ll borrow from a Supreme Court justice that was asked, ‘What is your definition of pornography?’ He said, ‘You know I really don’t have a definition of pornography other than to say when I see it I know what it is.’ In this case I don’t think any of us want to watch a holocaust occurring but I don’t want to apply a definition here or a course of action that for the most part is what we’ve been doing forever, is militarily intervening. In Syria right now, we are funding the insurgents. The insurgents are jihadists. Did not we learn from Afghanistan where we funded Osama Bin Laden? There is no end to our military interventions and the unintended consequences that go along with these military interventions. I would just suggest that we have hundreds of millions of enemies to this country that but for these military interventions would otherwise not exist. Drones take out the target, but drones also kill innocent civilians in these countries and these innocent civilians that die are friends and family of others that vow vengeance on the United States, up to and including giving their own lives if need be to bring about that vengeance.

No Discussion of Drones

Drones have become a key part of US operations that are greatly impacting foreign policy between countries like Pakistan and Yemen. But, Esquire’s Tom Junod highlighted how the issue of drones will be off the table and wrote:

The question that should be asked in tonight’s foreign-policy debate won’t be. The question that should be asked would have to do with the killing of American citizens in the name of foreign policy, and would go something like this: “President Obama, just over a year ago an American drone killed a 16-year-old American citizen named Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Despite your personal involvement in America’s targeted killing programs, you have never acknowledged nor addressed the circumstances of his death. How do you justify such secrecy under the United States Constitution and do you, Governor Romney, also believe that such secrecy is justified?”…

It will not be asked because “the administration has done its utmost to convince the American public that it can’t be asked.” It has also worked to convince the press that this is a matter of national security off-limits to debate by having officials make speeches aimed at settling the issue and halting discussion.

There is a real difference that should be given attention but may not surface at all. Obama, unlike Bush, has mostly abandoned a policy of capturing alleged terrorists. He kills them by drones or sends special operations in to execute them. Romney’s advisors would continue this policy but would also capture some alleged terrorists and then subject them to enhanced interrogation techniques or torture tactics the Obama administration is believed to have banned. (For more, see here on Obama, Romney & the issue of torture, go here.)

Of course, the difference is tactical and is a byproduct of the notion that the country must continue to pursue a war against terrorism. It still would be nice to see the two men questioned on stage and forced to argue what is better: state-sanctioned murder or indefinite detention and torture. The barbarity and moral bankruptcy of US foreign policy would be on full display.

War on Terrorism Abroad Fuels a War at Home

Both Obama and Romney are guaranteed to ignore the War on Drugs. Its continuation has foreign policy implications. Particularly in Latin America, where countries are decriminalizing marijuana and other drugs, new approaches are being adopted that the US will either admit have merit or they will allow to become a source of tension that fuels conflict.

What happens abroad has a profound effect at home. The War on Terrorism has been used to limit civil liberties and justify gross violations of privacy, due process, speech, assembly, etc. The connection will not be made.

Stein said in the IVN debate, “This whole question of national security—If we didn’t have this kind of hyped up, brute force policy of militarism, a foreign policy based on securing oil resources, and fighting to secure them, and dropping bombs on weddings and funerals in pursuit of these drone wars, if we didn’t have such a foreign policy, there would be no need for hyped up national security.” Without Johnson or Stein on stage, the political show is certain to not address the war at home.

In conclusion, a plethora of issues have been off-limits to discussion. They will remain off-limits to discussion. This will benefit Obama, whose base will be given reason to fear an overly belligerent Romney Administration. It will benefit Romney, whose base will be given reason to fear a cowardly Obama Administration that leads from behind.

And the pressure will be on: Who can appear more tough, strong or jingoistic? Who will make Americans believe they are more likely to make certain countries understand America is No. 1?

Obama killed Osama bin Laden. Would Romney have had the guts to make the call to kill Bin Laden? They should probably each sit at a console and see who has better warrior skills when it comes to executing someone on a kill list with a drone.

Absent Johnson and Stein, expect a battle over who would be more macho and smart about being macho to take up a good portion of the night’s scheduled political theater, which only someone indifferent to the corruption of the CPD would call a debate.