Obama Wins Last Presidential Debate Decisively

ByDavid Shorr


I enjoyed my evening live-blogging here in policymic. If you found my commentary useful, please read my regular blog Democracy Arsenal or follow me on Twitter: @David_Shorr.

The key question about Mitt Romney's readiness to serve as president is the same for both foreign and domestic policy: is he really offering workable solutions to the problems America faces? Throughout the campaign, Romney has deflected pressure to provide specifics, and his foreign policy answers in tonight's final debate were no different. For much of the evening, Romney merely listed bad things happening in the world, seeming to argue that a vague aura of toughness would set everything right. But as President Obama reminded us, Romney's stances have shifted with the winds. Romney is now for diplomacy with Iran, after being against it. And Romney came out against removing Qaddafi from power in Libya in the middle of the NATO bombing campaign.

President Obama's sensible foreign policy and record of success only looked better, now that voters saw it side-by-side with Governor Romney's vague ideas about "strength" and "leadership." The best example was when Romney boasted about supporting tough sanctions on Iran's nuclear program back in the 2000s. But Obama pointed out that his success on sanctions stemmed from the patient diplomatic work of building support, succeeding where Bush failed. 

So-called "leadership" without any other nations behind us is just unilateralism. President Obama is running on a strong foreign policy record; Mitt Romney is not ready for prime time.


Foreign policy is the area in which American presidents have the greatest authority. They conduct the nation's global affairs without the kind of congressional involvement that has hampered President Obama in pursuing many of his domestic priorities. And as we saw in the Iraq War, foreign policy decisions can have disastrous international, domestic, economic, and human consequences. 

There have been clear contrasts between the two candidates throughout the campaign. President Obama is running on a strong pragmatic record of winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking out Osama bin Laden and dozens of other senior Al Qaeda leaders, and restoring America's credibility with other nations after the mistrust stirred by the Iraq War. Governor Romney's foreign policy platform has been long on ideology and rhetoric, and notably short on practical policy ideas. Sometimes it seems as if Romney and his advisers confuse rhetoric with substance -- regularly stressing the words leadership, resolve, strength, and exceptionalismas if they were the Republicans' magical powers to melt away the world's problems and problem-makers. 

As we know, however, other nations don't comply with American wishes just because our leaders press them more insistently. On Monday night I expect Governor Romney to follow the old H.L. Mencken adage that "for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong," And I expect President Obama to call Romney on it. 

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UPDATED 10:02 That exchange on Israel says it all. Romney tries to make a big issue of visiting Israel, with the president who Israeli leaders credit with the most extensive security assistance in the history of US-Israeli relations. But don't take it from me, a former Obama administration Pentagon official who was involved, Colin Kahl, has laid it all out.

9:55 President just made the key point regarding Romney's boast that he was for crippling sanctions before they were cool. The problem with Romney, Bush, etc is that they try to put pressure on governments like Iran without doing the work of building international support. Oh by the way, the internationl community still feel pretty burned by that whole no-weapons-of-mass-destruction-in-Iraq thing. So it's no surprise that Obama has succeeded on sanctions where Bush failed; he took the time to build the coalition. If anything, it's impressive that he overcame the suspicion stirred up by Bush's Iraq war.

9:45  Ah the sequester, let's remind ourselves what that was about. During the debt ceiling debate / debacle of 2011 -- in which Republicans played loose with America's full faith and credit -- it was decided that horrifying "triggers" would force both parties to find a deficit solution. The point of sequestering (cutting) a chunk of the Pentagon budget is to KEEP IT FROM HAPPENING. 

9:35 Wait, the uncertainties we face in the future is an argument for electing Romney?! Romney's winning ... if you're scoring by platitudes-per-minute.  Apparently he's for strength, principles, leadership. Oh, and he has a plan for the future

9:30 BTW, here's the article where Mitt Romney said -- in the middle of the Libya operation -- that we shouldn't go after Ghaddafi

Mission Muddle in Libya

By Mitt Romney

April 21, 2011 11:12 A.M.



In a nationally-televised speech on March 28, President Obama defined the American military mission in Libya as humanitarian: We would enforce a no-fly zone to prevent Libyan forces from bombing civilians. I support that specific, limited mission. Last week, the president wrote in an op-ed with his British and French counterparts that “to succeed, Qaddafi must go and go for good.”

It is apparent that our military is engaged in much more than enforcing a no-fly zone. What we are watching in real time is another example of mission creep and mission muddle. In an op-ed in today’s Boston Herald, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton rightly notes that Obama has set himself up for “massive strategic failure” by demanding Qaddafi’s ouster “while restricting military force to the limited objective of protecting civilians.” Military action cannot be under-deliberated and ad hoc. The president owes it to the American people and Congress to immediately explain his new Libya mission and its strategic rationale.

— Mitt Romney is the former governor of Massachusetts and author of No Apology.

Pretty lame

9:20 That section on Syria was the part of the debate where Romney tries to say he'd do a better job, while talking about stuff Obama is already doing. How many other topics will he try that?

9:15 Obama on Middle East: region's people are main authors of their own future; US can try helping push in right direction. Seems sensible

9:05 Does Romney think the United States is the key factor in the political order of all those Middle Eastern countries?

9:00  I can personally attest to Rachel Maddow's point that the Democratic foreign policy expert community spent the Bush years trying to figure out the best approach for our fast-changing world. Our Republican counterparts' problem is exactly that they haven't done similar re-thinking.

8:58 Chris Matthews flubbed it before on the China currency issue -- Obama has successfully pushed China to boost its currency by 11% in last four years -- but Matthews really has Romney's number in terms of having no foreign policy knowledge or depth beyond the standard talking points. 

8:35 A friend on Facebook asks whether Romney will try to claim he knows how to do this. I don't think he'll be quite so bold. I expect him to take the approach that his friend and campaign surrogate former Sen. Jim Talent has taken, for instance recently on Chuck Todd's Daily Rundown

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Romney will try to paint Obama as outside the mainstream bipartisan tradition (kettle, meet pot). In other words, "it's obvious to everyone how to do this, but Obama is too solicitous of adversaries"

8:25 (EDT) Ahead of the expected focus tonight on the Arab Spring, I want to share links to two excellent pieces. An interesting take on Lybia / Benghazi a few weeks ago from Middle East expert and blogger Marc Lynch. Lynch asks why there were more Pro-American protests than Anti-American riots in Libya. His answer: because President Obama came to the aid of ordinary Libyans in their hour of need last year to remove Ghaddafi. And Lynch's broader point is that Obama was largely successful in helping the United States come through the Arab Spring with as much influence as we could hope to preserve in tumultuous times. 

As a Republican foreign policy maven and Romney advisor, Robert Kagan hardly gives Obama an A+ on Middle East policy, but he does counsel calm patience with the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and other Islamist political parties. And that is a gutsy thing for a Republican in 2012. 

A Debate Preview...

The truth is, Romney has a one-point foreign policy plan to go with his economic plan. For the past year, Romney has argued that a more bullheaded approach -- brooking no possibility of others resisting American wishes -- will get the rest of the world to straighten up and fly right. As I've said before, right-wingers like Romney really should heed an adage widely cited in the military: the enemy gets a vote. Meaning, other players aren't necessarily obliged to do what we want them to. 

For me, the essence of Romney's foreign policy approach is a naive belief in America's ability to shape world events through steely determination alone. The way Romney and his advisors talk about the world, America should ignore the concerns and possible reactions of other international players; rather than tailoring US actions to those realities, we should just doggedly insist on getting our way. (Sound familiar?) Having watched the 2012 foreign policy debate pretty closely over the last year, I'm not aware of a single major element of Romney's foreign policy argument that acknowledges the need for America to solicit international support. And the more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel with Republicans' belief in the magical power of Business Confidence to fix our economic woes. This led me to borrow a page from Paul Krugman and coin the idea of the Resolve FairyTM. And I have to give a shout-out to Daniel Nexon over at Duck of Minerva for putting it all together and casting Romney as a misguided Teddy Roosevelt wannabe who advocates "talking loudly and carrying a magic wand."

But going back to the debate, let's get a few things clear:

President Obama has put Iran under the strongest sanctions and international pressure it has ever confronted -- a success he's achieved not through bluster but dilligent coalition-building. The sanctions that have spurred hyperinflation in Iran are the major inconvenient fact for the Romney campaign, and it would be impossible to carry them out without the cooperation of other nations. As for Republicans' relatively new talking about their supporting the imposition of sanctions quicker and earlier, let's remember that recruiting international support gets much harder when the United States tries to rush things -- rather than steadily spotlighting Iranian intransigence the way President Obama has done. You see, the international community is still a little leery of American alarmism after that whole episode with the [absence of] WMD in Iraq. Also note that for all the Romney-ites emphasis on supporting America's friends and allies, South Korea, Japan, and India are among the biggest importers of Iranian oil.  If Romney had been in the White House last year, Qaddafi would still be ruling Libya. Can we finally call BS on the Republicans' over-hyped Benghazi "scandal?" For one thing, I have a hard time listening to Chairman Darrell Issa's supposed concern over national security when he mishandles sensitive information and endangers the lives of Libyans who have helped the United States (not to mention House Republicans slashing the State Department security budget). For another thing, by now it's obvious what Obama's harshest critics are really looking for: not the facts of the attack (i.e. when and by whom it was planned), but silly semantic fights over which words make the attack sound worse. I also think it would be terrible legacy for Ambassador Stevens and the three other Americans killed for us to forget the real meaning of Benghazi. In 2011 President Obama worked with NATO allies and Arab partner nations to mount Operation Unified Protector to keep Qaddafi from slaughtering thousands of his own people in Benghazi -- where Stevens was the first senior official on the ground, despite the dangers. And at the time, Romney said Obama was going too far.  China is another case where Obama has shown results in contrast to Romney's hotheadedness. Believe it or not, the Benghazi attack wasn't the first time Romney inserted himself in the middle of a delicate international situation before the dust had even settled. President Obama's team was still working closely with a Chinese dissident who had been hosted and protected by the US embassy, Chen Guangcheng, when Romney impulsively seized on a sudden (yet temporary) reversal by calling it “a dark day for freedom” and “a day of shame for the Obama administration.” Today Chen and his family are living in Manhattan, where he is a visiting fellow at New York University. And as for the Chinese currency, President Obama's persistent pressure on Beijing helped induce an 11% appreciation in the value of the renminbi -- to the benefit of US exports -- having success where President Bush failed to achieve any in his eight years. (For a reminder of John Bolton's role in the Romney campaign's hot mess of a foreign policy, see this dissection of Bolton's own op-ed on Chen Guangcheng.)

See you at the debate!