Initially, one might not assume cyber attacks could be equated to weapons of mass destruction, but a massive computer generated attack has the potential for enormous destruction. Though the attack may lack massive casualties or visible damage resulting from a missile or bomb, there can be extensive damage concerning stolen intelligence or intellectual property, loss of millions of dollars, or a major blow to the economy. The internet exists as an autonomous international tool where no entity has the ability to exert significant control over it.
Call it the foreign-policy debate that wasn’t.
In the third and final presidential debate, moderator Bob Schieffer’s questions focused on international affairs, but the candidates steered a large portion of the discussion toward domestic issues, such as jobs, education, and taxes. At a number of points, it felt like we weren’t hearing anything about foreign policy at all. And when we did, it wasn’t much of a debate: Romney agreed implicitly or explicitly with Obama on a number of national security issues, including Syria, Iran, the ouster of President Mubarak in Egypt, Pakistan, and drone strikes.
Indeed, if you’ve been following Romney’s foreign policy positions over the course of 2012, you might not have recognized the contender on stage Monday evening. Romney backed away from his previously hawkish, neoconservative positions, putting forward a relatively more hands-off view of America in the world. He defended withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, economic development and education in the Middle East, and disavowed the idea of military action in Syria.
President Obama, for his part, seemed to have come prepared to attack a more hawkish opponent – early on, he blasted Romney for taking a rigidly conservative stance on Russia, the New START treaty and other issues, saying, “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.” But when it became clear that the neoconservative he came to debate was absent without leave, Obama did the next best thing: he called Romney out for the flip-flop:
“You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies.”
For some, Obama might have come across as overly critical (as Romney himself put it, “attacking me is not an agenda”). But the idea that Romney is a flip-flopper with no firm beliefs does resonate with voters, so it’s tough to say who came out on top in that regard.
In fact, it’s difficult to say who came out on top at all, because so often, the candidates seemed to be rushing to agree with one another. On Iran, Obama and Romney reaffirmed their willingness to take military action in the last resort, but there seemed to be a clear effort on both sides to keep the discussion focused on sanctions and other alternatives to war. And on Afghanistan, there was virtually no disagreement from Romney that we should withdraw by 2014, which stands in contrast to the vice-presidential debate, in which Paul Ryan strongly suggested that a Romney White House might continue combat operations beyond 2014.
Finally, on Syria, there was broad agreement that we need to avoid military intervention. Obama exhibited what I thought was real candor on Syria, given that he’s been blasted by both the left and right as indifferent to the massacre happening there. But during the debate, he was straight with the American people: “[W]hat we’re seeing taking place in Syria is heartbreaking,” he admitted. Then, though, he went on to concede the limits of American influence:
“But we also have to recognize that, you know, for us to get more entangled militarily in Syria is a serious step, and we have to do so making absolutely certain that we know who we are helping; that we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or allies in the region.”
A candidate on the presidential campaign trail, admitting that America can’t always make things better in troubled nations? That’s refreshing. And it was even more bracing to see the Republican candidate agree:“We don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.” To the extent that we can use Syria to gauge the enthusiasm for interventionism, the exchange suggested that there’s some level of bipartisan agreement that America is done getting militarily involved in Middle Eastern conflicts.
But the old, hawkish Romney wasn’t going to go away without a fight.
(more after the jump)
There were two main areas where the Governor was unable to fully abandon his previous neoconservative policies. The first was Iran: even though Romney largely endorsed the Obama approach, he doubled down on the idea that he won’t accept a nuclear-capable Iran. Romney continues to use this as a way to differentiate his Iran policy from Obama’s, but surely does not realize the implication of his words: a nuclear-capable Iran will exist long before a nuclear-armed Iran. In fact, Iran is arguably there already: it has the capacity to build a nuclear bomb, even if it hasn’t built one yet. There are actually many countries today that are nuclear-capable, including Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Sweden, Brazil, and Argentina, which would presumably all fail by Romney’s standard.
This means that, for all of Romney’s new talk about sanctions on Iran and treating military strikes as a last resort, he is much more likely to resort to force to accomplish a goal – halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program – that appears unattainable, at least through the use of military strikes.
The second place where we saw the old Romney was on the federal budget. Romney’s defense budget, which pegs defense spending at 4% of Gross Domestic Product, is clearly meant to support a more militarily-oriented foreign policy. The cost of this additional spending is estimated to be $2 trillion over the next decade.
Yet while Romney was content to walk away from his previous interventionist incarnation, he stuck to his budget plan, insisting that he would not cut military spending. Obama made the point that Romney wouldn’t be able to do this while also balancing the budget, but Romney countered by saying that he would be able to do both if he cut Obamacare and discretionary domestic spending.
So who won? Most post-debate surveys have suggested that Obama won on points, if not by a huge margin. Romney supporters counter that their candidate held his ground and showed that he can handle the position of commander-in-chief.
If you ask me, the real winner in this debate was pragmatism and prudence. Both candidates are under different kinds of pressure to support interventionist policies – Obama has come under fire for not doing more in Syria, right-wing Republicans want Romney to stay the course in Afghanistan, and both men have been encouraged to sound the drums of war in Iran. But with some important exceptions, I detected a consensus last night that war is not the answer, to quote the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Obama made this point most clearly on Syria, but one got the same sense on Iran. On Afghanistan, the candidates agreed that combat operations must end in 2014, and that this date does not “depend” on what happens in the meantime.
And if that was the candidates’ main message, I think that means the American public, which is strongly opposed to more war, was the real winner of the final debate.
The final presidential debate, which will cover foreign policy, is tonight at 9 pm EST. That leaves plenty of time to read up on the candidates’ records as well as the broader state of affairs in national security today. Courtesy of the Center for Arms…
Our friends at the Truman National Security Project just released an online Iran war simulation that puts you in the Oval Office and guides you step-by-step through the process of launching military strikes against Iran. As “President,” you receive bri…
On Columbus Day, Mitt Romney spoke about foreign policy at the Virginia Military Institute, his third attempt to lay out a vision for how he would handle international affairs in the White House. Unfortunately, the only vision that Mr. Romney offered was a rehash of the tired mainstream Republican foreign-policy formula: solving every problem with more force (which, of course, costs more money).
On nearly every issue, Mr. Romney offered little more than tough talk, giving no indication that he understood the limits of the effectiveness of force – or, for that matter, the realistic limits on military spending, which he claims his administration will not cut, even while forcing the deficit down. Here are just a few examples:
*Iran: Romney told the audience at VMI, “I will not hesitate to impose new sanctions on Iran and will — and will tighten the sanctions we currently have.” He did not specify what new sanctions he would add to an already extremely tough sanctions program, or how exactly he would tighten existing sanctions. Mr. Romney might think that talking about more and tougher sanctions sounds good, but it is not clear to what end. Sanctions are meant to pave the way for a diplomatic solution, which will be crucial in breaking the impasse between the West and Iran and preventing the outbreak of war. Yet Mr. Romney gave no indication that he understood how sanctions fit into a broader strategy of reaching a deal with Iran, or that he was aware of recent headlines showing that existing sanctions are already having a devastating impact on the Iranian economy.
*Syria: This was the area where Mr. Romney drew perhaps the sharpest contrast between himself and President Obama, saying that he would “identify and organize those members of the opposition who share our values and then ensure they obtain the arms they need.” This proposal is indicative of Romney’s military-heavy worldview, because he sees the provision of weaponry as a panacea, rather than a source of new problems, which it has been in the past. Indeed, as the New York Times wrote after the speech, Romney’s policy ignores the dangers of the “Afghanistan problem,” which refers to the possibility of US-provided arms falling into the hands of extremists who later pose dangers to the United States itself. Moreover, many of the rebels who want to oust Assad almost surely don’t “share our values.”
*The Navy: Romney pledged to “restore our Navy to the size needed to fulfill our missions by building 15 ships per year, including three submarines.” This is a textbook example of Romney’s “more is always better” philosophy: he didn’t explain what missions are currently being neglected because our Navy isn’t big enough, why the new ships and submarines are necessary, or – the ever-present elephant in the room – where he would get the money to pay for this expansion. A CNN fact-check made the point that “Having more ships does not really mean anything, according to experts. And making more ships does not necessarily mean anything, unless you have a plan for them.”
*Afghanistan: At the same time that Romney paid lip service to sticking to President Obama’s 2014 withdrawal timeline, he also criticized Obama’s “politically timed retreat” and promised to “evaluate conditions on the ground.” This seems to suggest that he’s willing to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014. Here, as on other issues, he’s out of touch: there is a growing consensus that the American presence in Afghanistan is doing little to improve the security situation there. Romney’s prescriptions for Afghanistan is woefully inadequate, relying on little more than the flawed assumption that an extended American troop presence will solve the complex problems in that country.
*The Budget: On the budget, we heard vague promises to “roll back President Obama’s deep and arbitrary cuts to our national defense.” As the Center for International Policy’s William Hartung pointed out, this is a false charge: Obama has maintained high levels of defense spending. (On the other hand, if Romney is referencing the “deep and arbitrary cuts” that would result from sequestration, perhaps he should recall that those cuts come as part of a deal that members of his own party, including his own running mate, voted for).
Romney seems to have hoped that simply calling for a tougher stance and additional military resources would bolster his case that Obama has been weak on foreign policy. But the fact is that adding more sanctions, more weapons, more troops, more ships, and more money to the Pentagon budget doesn’t translate to a stronger or smarter national security strategy. We’ve heard this before: it’s the standard Republican solution, and it doesn’t work. Recycled militarism is not good policy, and now, with a decade of war behind us and increasingly strained budgets, it’s not likely to be good politics, either.