The Duck of Minerva

Friday Morning Debate Reaction

12 October 2012

I scored the Romney-Obama debate as a tactical win for Romney. As of now, it looks more like a strategic one. The lesson for me, I think, is not to assess the political ramifications of debates. So in this post, I’ll simply stick to reflecting on the foreign-policy component of the debate, which turned out to be much more prominent than most of us expected.

The bottom line is that, with the exception of the earlier Libya exchange, Biden owned Ryan. Indeed, the debate continued to underscore the vacuousness of much of the Romney campaign’s “political” critique of Obama foreign policy.

I stress  the word “political” because the Romney team isn’t wrong about some things. The Russia reset succeeded in its first- and second-order goals, but it didn’t reap the dividends that the Obama administration hoped for. We can imagine a better approach to the Arab spring. And so on. Romney and Ryan simply can’t seem to offer policy alternatives that, on their own terms, address these failings.

For example:

  • US policy in the Middle East is “unravelling” because democratization is empowering political Islamists, most notably in Egypt. The policy prescription: the US should be more unequivocal in its support for democratization.
  • The Russia Reset has failed because Moscow won’t compromise on BMD and Syria. The policy prescription: don’t compromise on BMD and on Syria.
  • Iran is still pursuing nuclear weapons. The policy prescription: do what the Obama administration is doing, but with more sabre rattling of the sort that undermined efforts to formulate and implement sanctions.
  • The US exit strategy in Afghanistan won’t bring stability. The policy prescriptions: (1) keep the “surge” around longer to fight an inconclusive war with the Taliban and (2) don’t tell Kabul when the US plans to remove combat forces so as to reassure all those other ISAF members who want nothing more than to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Thus, the Romney-Ryan ticket’s depressing reliance on what might be termed the “speak loudly and carry a magic wand” doctrine: their ineffable capacity for “resolve” will somehow improve the policies of the status quo and resolve all of the contradictions of the changes they propose.