A sobering realization that strikes almost every American foreign correspondent or diplomat after a while is precisely this: what the American people really want from the rest of the world is to forget about it.
In the presidential debate on Monday night, both men seemed well aware of this fact. President Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, took every opportunity to turn the spotlight back on their ideas for domestic programs and the economy. But let us keep the focus on foreign affairs for the moment, because seemingly obscure events overseas have a way of coming back to bite the United States in, well, its unasked questions.
Terrorism, as we know, was barely touched on in the 2000 presidential debates. This time around, nobody mentioned Europe, even though its crisis could pull the United States and the rest of the world into an economic abyss. There was a lot of talk on the stage in Boca Raton about the Middle East, but not about several potentially momentous developments in the last few days on the periphery of a Syrian conflict that neither the president nor the challenger seemed to know how to address.
Jordan announced over the weekend that it had rounded up an Al Qaeda cell which may have ties to some Syrian rebel factions—or even to the Assad regime. Such is the murk of the region’s intrigues. The 11 militants allegedly planned to blow up shopping centers and murder Western diplomats, further destabilizing a monarchy that’s already looking shaky in the face of growing domestic dissent. That event went completely unremarked-upon in the debate, but if Jordan’s government starts to crumble—and many doomsayers in the Middle East expect it will—the repercussions will be felt immediately in neighboring Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Last Friday, a huge bomb blast in Beirut killed a powerful anti-Syrian security chief and at least seven other people, sucking Lebanon back toward the maelstrom of sectarian terror that tore the country apart through 15 years of civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Bob Schieffer, the debate moderator, raised that incident specifically, but both Obama and Romney slipped around it. Nobody really wants to talk about the Lebanonization of, well, Lebanon.
It’s clear that Romney wants foreign policy to be about vision, not messy details, and just about any vision will do if he thinks it will sell. He was etch-a-scketching shamelessly Monday night, erasing past visions that left him sounding like he was nostalgic for Dr. Strangelove. It was as if he’d never made what was supposed to have been his defining foreign policy speech just two weeks before, which keyed off the accomplishments of that quintessential cold warrior, George Marshall. And President Obama, once again, argued with Romney’s past statements rather than the new, centrist gloss his challenger adopted for prime time. Obama has what appears to be a self-defeating attachment to the truth, and his “Yes we can” mantra of four years ago continues to sound, today, like “We did what we could.”
On most issues, from Israel to Afghanistan, Iraq to Iran, what was striking about the Romney positions in the debate was how little they differed from Obama’s: unquestioned support for Israel if attacked; war against Iran if the country comes really close to making nuclear weapons; moral and some material support for Syrian rebels, but no military involvement; cautious but close engagement with nuclear-armed but oh-so-fragile Pakistan; withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Oh, yes, and China should be made to “play by the rules.” There were no real differences, except that Romney said if he’d been president the last four years he’d have done a better job doing what Obama actually did.
But there was one subject that proved surprising, mostly because of what was left unsaid. The very first question posed by Schieffer seemed to be custom made for Romney. It concerned Libya and the attack on American installations in Benghazi on Sept. 11 this year that killed U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Schieffer asked if this was an intelligence failure (clearly it was), a policy failure (perhaps less so), and whether or not there was an attempt to mislead people about what really happened (which is the impression the Obama administration has given about itself, whatever its actual intent).
But Romney didn’t knock that slow pitch out of the park. He didn’t even swing at it. Instead he lapsed into generalities about there being a lot of bad news in the Middle East, as indeed there is, and a catch phrase that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess.”
Does that strike you as a curious choice of words for a Republican candidate so committed to looking tough that he’s willing to squander trillions on unnecessary armaments? And why would Romney hold back on the Benghazi business anyway? He may have many reasons, but one, for sure, is that Republican political operatives are expecting they’ll wake up one morning to discover Obama announcing arrests—or perhaps drone attacks—targeting the people who swarmed the American consulate and ambushed the defenders of the CIA outpost in Benghazi. The Daily Beast reported that there’s a list of about 10 people liable to be captured or liquidated when Obama gives the word. On Monday the president reminded everyone that he’d said “we would go after those who killed Americans, and we would bring them to justice, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
Romney may not want to bet against that possibility, then find himself out in left field. If Obama makes such a move, it would certainly be popular. Americans never pay so much attention to foreign affairs as when they are taking revenge, and in a tight race Romney may well be concerned about Obama killing his way back to a second term.