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The unquestioned center

By Andrew J. Polsky

The third presidential debate made clear why Governor Mitt Romney has chosen not to wage a campaign based on foreign policy: there is simply no political gain in it. On issue after issue, he took stands effectively indistinguishable from those of President Barack Obama. Romney quibbled over details of timing or emphasis, asserting he would have taken action sooner or more forcefully. But on a wide range of questions — no military intervention in Syria, withdrawing from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, use of drones, sanctions on Iran — the challenger’s positions are substantively the same as the president. Unfortunately, when the candidates opt not to disagree, the American people are the losers.

Gone was the bellicose Romney of the primary season. That’s no surprise. Candidates tack to the center in most general election campaigns, appealing to the largest swath of voters. So far as the American people are concerned, on foreign policy there is no debate. They back the American exit from Afghanistan; they have no taste at the moment for another military conflict; they worry over China as a rival but not an enemy; they support Israel; and they don’t want Iran to get a nuclear weapon but worry over the risks of a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. Much the same can be said of the foreign policy community. Apart from neoconservatives caught in a pre-Iraq invasion time warp, a strong consensus has formed around the policies the administration has pursued over the past four years.

Vice President Joe Biden and his daughter Ashley Biden watch the third presidential debate from a hotel room in Toledo, Ohio, Oct. 22, 2012. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Where the governor tried to set himself apart, moreover, it came across more as a posture than a coherent policy. He has backed away from many of the conservative stands he adopted leading up to the Republican nomination, but one that he continues to maintain is that he would increase the defense budget:

And our military — we’ve got to strengthen our military long-term. We don’t know what the world is going to throw at us down the road. We — we make decisions today in a military that — that will confront challenges we can’t imagine. In the 2000 debates there was no mention of terrorism, for instance. And a year later, 9/11 happened. So we have to make decisions based upon uncertainty.

It makes no sense to throw money at the Pentagon without regard to potential threats or to the nature of future military conflicts, especially in a time when the national budget is under acute pressure. With the United States already spending close to half of the entire globe’s outlays on defense, more is pointless. So it isn’t surprising that few foreign policy experts agree with his position. It comes across as a gesture to Republican hawks, one unlikely to survive in a Romney administration when the time comes to make the budget math add up.

On foreign policy, then, the American people face an echo, not a choice. That’s unfortunate because we would have benefitted from a serious conversation about many aspects of the foreign policy consensus that has taken hold.

Consider, for example, Afghanistan. Debate moderator Bob Schieffer asked about the aftermath of the projected 2014 date for the withdrawal of American and other coalition combat forces: “[W]hat do you do if the deadline arrives and it is obvious the Afghans are unable to handle their security?” Neither candidate even pretended to answer the question. Romney made an unequivocal commitment to complete the troop withdrawal; the president spoke of the need to do nation-building at home. And neither addressed what purpose is served by the continued presence of outside troops in the face of recurrent episodes of so-called green-on-blue violence — attacks by Afghan troops on Americans and vice versa. The next president, whoever wins the election, evidently believes it is appropriate to ask for continued sacrifice from our troops with no clear explanation of its purpose. But if both Obama and Romney are prepared to accept the collapse of the Kabul regime after 2014, as is apparently the case, why are we not willing to risk that outcome sooner? What objective is served by staving off defeat? An argument might be made for continuing our current policy, but in the present consensus climate none has been offered.

Or take, as another troubling illustration, the lack of serious discussion about the increased use of drones under the Obama administration to attack suspected terrorists and their supporting networks. The American people remain ignorant about the targets and accepting of official claims that few civilians have been among the victims. Media accounts suggest otherwise. Yet despite questions about the morality of drone strikes, the foreign policy consensus invites no discussion of the ethical implications of American policy. Nor, for that matter, do we wrestle with the efficacy of the drone policy—whether it may be generating deeper hatred of the United States across the Islamic world.

Finally, the debate did nothing to unsettle one of the most dangerous conceits that Americans harbor about the wider world, namely, that it bends to American power, forcefully asserted or, if necessary, asserted by force. Although the president doesn’t escape criticism on this score, his opponent went the extra mile in playing to our jingoist spirit. Romney insisted that the United States should take the lead in every situation. By implication, American power must be unlimited. One can only hope that, if he should win, he will demonstrate that he knows better.

Andrew Polsky is Professor of Political Science at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. A former editor of the journal Polity, his most recent book is Elusive Victories: The American Presidency at War. Read Andrew Polsky’s previous blog posts.

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