The Third Debate: New Topic, Same Empty Taste

(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney exchange views during the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. 

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will meet tonight to discuss foreign affairs, and there's one thing I can predict with near-certainty: This discussion will be just as vacuous as the rest of the campaign. Which is too bad, because on foreign policy, the president's own personal interests, beliefs, and biases matter much more than they do on domestic policy.

An inordinate amount of time is spent during the campaign trying to pin down who the candidates are deep in their hearts, when in so many areas it doesn't matter at all. In the domestic realm, presidents are constrained by what Congress is willing to do and by their own party's priorities. Mitt Romney will seek to cut taxes, roll back regulations protecting the environment and workers' rights, cut Medicaid, and bring privatization to Medicare. He'll do these things little more or less than any of the people he ran against in the primaries, because he's a Republican and so are they. Imagine for a moment that deep in his heart, Mitt Romney believed women should be able to get abortions. Would that make his policies on that issue any different from those of the last Republican president? No, it wouldn't. He couldn't get Republicans in Congress to expand abortion rights if he wanted to, and he would know that, say, appointing a pro-choice justice to the Supreme Court would guarantee him a primary challenge in 2016. You could say the same about almost any domestic issue: Romney would be a creature of his party, not only because it's what he wants to do but because he has little choice.

Now let's take a counter-example. Barack Obama has decided that he has the unilateral right to order the killing of essentially anyone anywhere in the world, even American citizens. This is the kind of alarming arrogation of presidential power that Democrats complained about when the president doing the arrogating was George W. Bush. But most of them have been quiet about Obama's "kill list," partly because they don't want to undermine a president they otherwise like, and partly because only a small portion of people on either side care as much about foreign policy issues as they do about domestic issues. As many a commander-in-chief has discovered to his pleasure, foreign policy is a presidential blank check, no Congressional approval necessary in most cases. They can squawk all they like, but the decisions are his—even decisions as momentous as invading other countries.

So what kind of man the president is, what he believes and hopes and fears, his biases and preferences, these are all important when we talk about foreign policy. He may make some absolutely monumental decisions when everyone else has left the room, and it's just him staring out the Truman Balcony with nowhere to turn but to his gut.

We already know a great deal about the policies Obama would pursue in the next four years, because we've been watching him for the last four. He has promised to get us out of Afghanistan, for better or worse (and with that cursed country it is almost inevitably for worse) by the end of 2014. He'll continue the drone war he so dramatically expanded in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He shows little enthusiasm for getting America sucked into the conflict in Syria, or for a military action against Iran, the consequences of which could be catastrophic in a dozen ways.

And Romney? As always, it's impossible to tell what he believes. But unlike in other areas, here it matters. Romney decided long ago that he would adopt a pose of maximum belligerence on foreign affairs, and he's sticking to it. But does that mean he is itching to start a war with Iran, the way he sometimes sounds? Who knows?

Romney is disciplined enough about wielding his talking points that the debate won't give us a clue. Instead, much of the discussion will be about things that won't matter at all a few months from now. Being a creature of conventional wisdom, moderator Bob Schieffer—unquestionably a nice guy, but not someone likely to come up with a bunch of unexpected incisive questions—will probably concentrate on whatever the candidates have been talking about lately, to almost no one's benefit. They'll no doubt spend a substantial amount of time talking about the Benghazi attack, despite the fact that in the context of the presidential race there's nothing more to say. The Romney campaign's critique—that the real problem is what words the president used to describe the attack, and when—is too juvenile to even bother discussing. What do we have to figure out on this issue if we are to decide which of these two men would make a better president—their strategies for maintaining security at embassies and consulates?

The candidates will also surely be given the opportunity for some bluster on the question of trade with China, each pretending that if we just "get tough," millions of jobs in America can be created, and that the other guy is not nearly "tough" enough. All this tough-getting will be forgotten once the campaign ends. And of course, each candidate will have the chance to put on his determined face, look into the camera, and pledge that Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on his watch.

Twenty-eight years ago Tuesday, a truck filled with explosives drove into a compound in Beirut housing troops sent to keep the peace in a country almost destroyed by invasion and civil war. The ensuring explosion destroyed the Marine barracks, killing 241 American servicemen. Within a few months, President Ronald Reagan had withdrawn all American troops from the country. But that move, which today's Republicans would no doubt consider an appalling act of weakness, was overshadowed by events elsewhere. Two days after the Marine barracks bombing, the invasion of the tiny island nation of Grenada began. Hilariously code-named Operation Urgent Fury (they might as well have called it Operation Desperate Overcompensation), this was the kind of military action Reagan could get behind, and Mitt Romney no doubt yearns for. Token resistance from a few dirty commies, no backlash against American interests elsewhere, and altogether it made for a clean and satisfying little war.

But there are no more Grenadas. We don't invade the countries of our Spanish-speaking neighbors to the south anymore, secure in the knowledge that the Monroe Doctrine lives on and no one will much care what we do in "our" hemisphere. These days, every spot we might consider projecting our awesome machine of war comes with all kinds of messy complications. As a candidate, Mitt Romney pretends that being "strong" and "resolute" solves every problem and makes every situation simple and straightforward. I doubt he believes it, and it would help to know what he believes. But we probably won't get the chance before November 6.

You may also like