Face/Off: The Last 2012 Presidential Debate

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Timothy R. Furnish holds a PhD in Islamic, World and African history. He is a former U.S. Army Arabic linguist and officer who currently works as an author, Islamic World analyst and consultant to the U.S. government and military.

Credit: Flickr/Neon Tommy.

On Monday night, October 22, President Obama and Governor Romney squared off in the final debate of the 2012 presidential election season. The moderator was CBS’s Bob Schieffer, and the scheduled sole topic of foreign policy was more than once pushed aside as both candidates tried to reinforce their domestic affairs message. But in toto this was a well-refereed debate and a valuable window into the geopolitical thinking of the current president of the United States and his challenger.

Schieffer wasted no time and pulled no punches, opening with the Middle East and terrorism and, in particular, what the candidates thought about the attacks that killed our ambassador and three other Americans in Libya. Romney opined that the initial optimism of the “Arab Spring” had given way to “disturbing events” such as northern Mali’s takeover by “al-Qaeda type individuals,” a Muslim Brotherhood president in Egypt, the attack in Libya and Iran now being “four years closer to a nuclear weapon.” He also noted, in what may have been the best line of the entire debate (even better than Obama’s later and much more publicized caustic remark about “bayonets and horses”), that “we can’t kill our way out of this mess” but, rather, that the U.S. needs to “put in place a very comprehensive and robust strategy to help ... the world of Islam. ... reject this radical violent extremism.”

Obama countered with the by now standard-issue adminstration claim to have “decimated al Qaeda’s [al Qaeda] core leadership,” and more broadly that the U.S. was the driving force behind removing al-Qadhafi from power, that we are “transition[ing] out of Afghanistan” and that Romney’s proposed “strategy ... has been all over the map.” Romney’s mention of Mali, where a Salafist/jihadist group named Ansar al-Din has taken control of the northern half of the country, was a good touch but probably made little impact on non-experts. And he was on the right track with the idea of the U.S. helping empower Muslims themselves to reject Salafism/jihadism. However, he fell back into the tired and almost meaningless trope of “radical violent extremism” -- thereby making clear he either fails to understand, or cannot bring himself to be honest about, the fact that said “extremism” (both domestic and foreign) is itself legitimately Islamic, with roots going back to the jihads of Islam’s founder, Muhammad.

Obama rightly noted that much of al Qaeda’s management has been sent to visit the houris (the infamous seventy-two virgins), but failed to address how it is that such losses are so easily replaced -- again, like Romney, exhibiting ignorance (in Obama’s case, almost certainly feigned) as to the fact that al Qaeda is not a new movement but simply the most deadly and modern articulation of ancient Qur’an- and Hadith-based violent proclivities in Islam. The president was quite fortunate the allegations had not yet surfaced that someone in his adminisistration had denied military backup to the security forces in Benghazi.

Continuing on this topic, Romney attempted to flesh out his help-the-Islamic-world-escape-“extremism” project by agreeing with a UN-sponsored study group that said the best way to do this would be by promoting economic development, better education, gender equality and the rule of law in the Islamic and Arab world. This seems perioulously close to the discredited liberal idea that poverty produces not just domestic crime but transnational terrorism. One also wonders how better education and gender equality can possibly gain ground among Qur’anic literalists such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan and, for that matter, our Wahhabi Saudi allies -- all of whom are opposed to non-Islamic education and rights for women. And those groups all support the rule of law already -- albeit shari`ah law.

Obama accused Romney, again, of being “all over the map” -- yet his own critique of the GOP candidate’s views was a rather confused, scattershot one that lurched from al Qaeda to the governor’s alleged “Cold War” view of Russia to his support for Bush invading Iraq because of those nonexistent WMDs. And the president accused his opponent (not for the last time) of promoting “reckless” policies. Romney, in his response, said that while he considered Russia a “geopolitical foe” that “Iran is the greatest national security threat we face.” Romney’s attempt to clarify his position on Iraq devolved into several minutes of cross-talk and arguing about who supported the post-U.S.-occupation Status of Forces agreement and when he had done so. Once Schieffer restored order, Obama summed up his Middle East policy by saying that his administration constantly worked on “making sure these countries are supporting our counterterrorism efforts,” “standing by our interests in [sic] Israel’s security,” “protecting religious minorities and women,” helping them “develop their economic capabilities” and, finally, letting the American people and our foreign allies know that “we can’t continue to do nation-building in these regions” and that we need to turn to “doing nation-building here at home.”

That last was an effective point for Americans in such tough economic times, particularly for the many who question just what we are still doing in Afghanistan 11 years after 9/11, but Obama’s remark about “protecting religious minories” was risible, as on his watch Christians are being persecuted and killed in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, Nigeria and many other Islamic nations sans condemnation by the president or his secretary of state, while other administration spokesmen deny that Islam has anything to do with it.

Schieffer then asked both men specifically about Syria, reminding Obama that “it’s been more than a year since ... you told Assad he had to go” and “since then, 30,000 Syrians have died.” The president responded that the U.S. has “organize[d] the international community, saying Assad has to go” and that he was “confident that Assad’s days are numbered.” He also criticized Romney’s alleged proposal to provide the Syrian opposition groups with “heavy weapons.” Romney tried to wax geopolitical in his response, noting correctly that “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world” and quite wrongly that it is “their [sic: Iran’s] route to the sea” -- for which Romney has received no small measure of grief. He continued by recommending that the U.S. try to organize and, yes, arm the Syrian opposition, not hand off policy there to [former UN Secretary-General] Kofi Annan and the Russians. Obama, in follow-up, reminded viewers that he was the brains and brawn behind the coalition that drove al-Qadhafi from power, although his gloss that the Libyan dictator “had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden” was almost certainly wrong -- that dubious honor likely belongs to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, as Tehran has funded and supported jihadists in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere for decades.

Romney’s supplemental remarks included an adamant refusal to countenance American boots on the ground in Syria -- rather undercutting Obama’s several attempts to portray the GOP candidate as “reckless,” most notably in the president’s implication that the Republican would somehow have supported, Tiananmen Square-like, “tanks run[ing] over those young people in Tahrir Square [in Cairo].” Romney’s attempts to explain what he would have done differently when Egyptian ruler Mubarak’s reign began to crumble were confusing bordering on inarticulate.

Romney then adduced several jarringly different authorities on the issue of the danger of American debt -- Iranian President Ahmadinejad and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, seguing from that to a warning about the proposed $1 trillion cut in defense spending that would be mandated if budgetary sequestration actually is carried through. (A bit later Obama fulminated that “the sequester is not something that I’ve proposed. It is something that Congress has proposed. It will not happen.” But sequestration is the law of the land, signed into effect by Obama in August 2011.) And Romney once again hammered Obama on his failure to support the abortive “Green Revolution” in Iran. Obama countered that America “is stronger now than when I came into office” and repeated his charge Romney “has proposed wrong and reckless policies.” Romney, when queried by Schieffer about his policy proposals, reiterated his desire to make North America an energy-independent entity, increase trade with Latin America, and balance the budget. He also mentioned improving training and education, leading to a long Obama-Romney detour into subjects such as class size.

Schieffer had to drag the two men kicking and posturing to the topic of military size and budget -- but not before a running exchange between Romney and Obama on whether the former could actually balance the budget, and the Obama claim that his opponent has “called for $5 trillion of tax cuts” (which is, according to objective analysis, simply inaccurate.) Once they got around to the military issue, Romney pointed out quite rightly that “our Navy is smaller at any time since 1917,” at some 285 ships,” that the “Air Force is older and smaller than at any time since it was founded in 1947,” and that for the first time since World War II the U.S. is not prepared to fight two conflicts at once.

These statements, of course, provided the president the opportunity to fire off the most (in)famous line of the debate: “Well, governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed.” Piling on, and sounding rather petty, patronizing and unpresidential, Obama continued: “We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of 'Battleship,' where we’re counting ships. It’s what our capabilities are.” Beyond the obvious problem inherent in equating major surface warships with pre-modern modes of warfare, Obama does have a strategic point. But Romney is also correct to observe that there is a floor below which the world’s sole remaining superpower and global cop should not let its force projection abilities fall -- the president’s mockery notwithstanding.

When asked whether they would equate an atack on Israel with one on the U.S., neither candidate would directly assent -- instead, Obama said “if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel” and Romney agreed. Hoping to allay the Israelis’ greatest concern about who would attack them, Obama insisted that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” because of “the strongest sanctions against Iran in history ... crippling their [sic] economy.” Curiously, Obama repeated the neo-conservative and evangelical Christian charge that the Tehran regime has “said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map” (which is actually a hyperbolization of what the Islamic Republic’s leadership has maintained for years -- that Israel will be “wiped from the pages of history” after the Mahdi returns and not by any human efforts). And he accused Romney of “talk[ing] as if we should take premature military action,” presumably against Iran. The fact that these “crippling sanctions” have not slowed at all the Islamic Republic’s march toward nuclear power and weapons was obviously ignored by the president. Romney, for his part, simply doubled down on Obama’s fantasy-laden fecklessness in stating that our mission is “to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.”

Then the GOP challenger broached a topic that has received little commentary, post-debate: “I’d make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation.” The “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948 and 142 of the world’s nations (Iran included, albeit under the pre-ayatollah government) have agreed to abide by it. Article 3 includes the following as punishable: genocide itself; conspiracy to commit; direct and public incitment thereto; attempt to commit; and complicity therein. Romney seems to be channeling prominent evangelical pastor John Hagee, who co-authored an article with Rabbi Joseph Potasnik two years ago calling for this very charge to be levied on Ahmadinejad. The problem with this approach is that, as aforementioned, neither Iran’s president nor its Supreme Leader has ever really done any of these, but rather simply noted that according to their understanding of Twelver Shi`i Islam the “Zionist political entity” would cease to exist once the Twelfth Imam had returned from occultation. No Islamic Holocaust of Jews is ever actually called for. Romney seems to be courting the evangelical vote here more than he is proffering a serious policy plank for dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Romney was on more solid ground in deriding the Obama “apology tour” in the Middle East, starting with is famous Cairo speech in June 2009. Romney may have gotten some of the venues wrong -- as Britain’s Telegraph put it these de facto apologies were actually issued in Europe, where Obama “went further than any United States president in history in criticising his own country’s actions while standing on foreign soil” -- but he did get the thrust of Obama’s words correct. Obama tried to brand Romney a liar, stating flatly “nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologizing.” Perhaps the word “sorry” never actually passed Obama’s lips, but in Cairo he said that the “fear and anger” engendered by the 9/11 attacks “in some cases led us to act contrary to our traditions and ideals.” Outside of the Ron Paul radical libertarian Right, and the Code Pink/Bill Maher radical socialist Left, very few Americans actually seem to agree with Obama on this point. And just two months earlier, in Strasbourg, France -- as The Telegraph reported -- Obama critiqued his own country for “arrogance” and allegedly being “dismissive and derisive” toward the Europeans. So it turns out that very much of what Governor Romney said regarding Obama’s breast-beating on America’s behalf is accurate. And Romney’s retort that “Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations, we have freed other nations from dictators” no doubt played well in Peoria and the Pentagon.

When Schieffer asked “what if the Prime Minister of Israel called you ... and said ‘our bombers are on the way ... to bomb Iran,” Romney responded with a refusal to engage in hypotheticals, and instead launched once more into a litany how, internationally, “I see our influence receding:” Iran closer to nuclear weapons, “jihadists continuing to spread,” 30,000 dead in Syria, larger trade deficit with China, Russia saying ‘they’re not going to follow Nunn-Lugar anymore.’” (The latter is shorthand for the 1992 “Cooperative Threat Reduction Program,” signed by Russia and the U.S. right after the collapse of the Soviet Union as a vehicle for elimination of nuclear weapons by both sides, under which some 7,600 such weapons have been dismantled. Two weeks ago Russia announced that it would cease abiding by the protocol once it expires at the end of this year.) President Obama countered with, again, accusing Romney of wandering “all over the map” but then himself addressed none of the issues raised by the GOP nominee, instead defaulting to his prominent role in eliminating bin Laden and excoriating his opponent for saying that “we shouldn’t move heaven and earth to get one man.” And although even the Washington Post pointed out, post-debate, that the president conveniently ignored the rest of Romney’s 2007 statement (which stressed the need to go after all such jihadists in groups like Hizbullah, Hamas, etc.), Obama was essentially correct in this charge.

Schieffer took this opening to move into questions on the Afghanistan war, notably “what do you do if the deadline arrives and the Afghans are unable to handle their security?” Romney reiterated that if he wins “we’re going to be finished by 2014 and ... I’ll make sure we bring our troops out.” He then pivoted to Pakistan and launched into a respectable disquisition on that country’s nuclear weapons’ vulnerability to a takeover by the likes of the Pakistani Taliban in general and the Haqqani network in particular. Obama, for his part, stressed the fact that his getting us out of Afghanistan two years hence will allow for “some nation building here at home” via “rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, making sure that ... our veterans are getting the care they need....”

Schieffer then asked, in light of Pakistan being a “safe haven for terrorists” and “Americans continu[ing] to die [in Afghanistan] at the hands of groups who are supported by Pakistan:” “is it time for us to divorce Pakistan?” Governor Romney replied “no,” but admitted that while “Pakistan is ... technically an ally ... they’re [sic] not acting very much like an ally right now” the fact is that “we can’t just walk away from Pakistan.” Schieffer then pressed Romney on drone strikes. Romney started out shakily, channeling George Bush in stating that “it’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes” but getting his geopolitical feet firmly beneath him by observing once again, quite rightly, that “we’re going to have to do more than just ... killing bad guys, important as that is. We’re going to have to have a far more effective and comprehensive strategy to help move the world away from terror and Islamic extremism.” President Obama, in rejoinder, stated that his administration was doing exactly that in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan and that “al-Qaeda [sic] is much weaker than it was when I came into office.” Why the State Department list of foreign terrorist organizations still contains thirty-two Islamic ones (over 60 percent of the total) -- a figure that is essentially the same as when Obama came into office—remained unexplained by the president.

Schieffer then asked, “What do you believe is the greatest future threat to the national security of this country?” Obama replied “terrorist networks,” with China as “both an adversary, but also a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.” Romney stated the greatest threat is “a nuclear Iran,” although he also seized the opportunity to criticize the Obama administration for allowing China to act as a “currency manipulator” and promised that he would “apply tariffs where they’re [the Chinese] taking jobs” as well as “stealing our intellectual property ... hacking into our computers, counterfeiting our goods.” Pressed by Schieffer as to whether that approach might spark a trade war with China, Romney replied that because of the massive trade deficit we have with China, “it’s pretty clear who doesn’t want a trade war.” Obama then responded that “we’re organizing trade relations with countries other than China so that China starts feeling more pressure about meeting basic international standards.” This line of discussion then degenerated into several minutes of Car Talk, as the president and Governor Romney emulated Frick and Frack on the NPR show of that name in less good-naturedly arguing about whose policies shipped more jobs overseas and whether Romney would have “saved” the car industry (Ford excepted) as Obama claims to have done.

Schieffer then asked for closing statements, beginning with the president, who once again accused Romney of proposing “a foreign policy that’s wrong and reckless” and reiterated that “we’ve got to do some nation building here at home” while making sure America retains “the strongest military in the world.” Governor Romney finished by reminding that the U.S. under Obama is “heading towards Greece” with its debt, that he knows how to create millions of private sector jobs, and that -- courtesy of having been the Republican governor of a Democratic state -- he also is adept at working with “the other side of the aisle” and would do so in Washington.

At times I wasn’t sure if this was the final 2012 Presidential debate or a remake of the 1997 film Face/Off, in which an FBI agent (John Travolta) and a terrorist (Nicholas Cage) have their faces surgically switched and go after one another, leaving their friends and comrades suitably bewildered. The kinder-and-gentler Democrat, under whose dispensation the planet was supposed to heal and the Islamic lion lie down with the Western lamb, primarily portrayed himself -- not inaccurately -- as a Predator-wielding Commander-in-Chief. The allegedly “reckless” and warmongering Republican, on the other hand, came off as positively McGovernesque, susurrating about a “peaceful planet” and how much he loves teachers. One suspects that Obama is neither as hawkish, nor Romney as dovish, as claimed in this debate. In fact, it was striking just how similar are the worldviews of these two men when it comes to foreign affairs and geopolitics; a President Romney would, it seems, differ in degree but not really in kind from President Obama -- although there are hopeful signs that he might, such as his willingness to (at least occasionally) acknowledge that extremism in the modern world is almost always Islamic, his clarity on how the U.S. military should not shrink any further, and his acknowledgement that America’s debt is, in effect, a financial sword of Damocles which President Obama has little intention of removing.

In the final runup to the election, President Obama may find all these strategic issues overshadowed by tactical questions: what he knew about the terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya, when he knew it, and whether he (or another official) indeed refused military help to our besieged foreign service staff. “Benghazi-gate” may prove the death knell of the Obama administration, or merely a bump in the road to his historic re-election. We will know in just over a week.

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