Prelude to Election

The Third Presidential Debate

There were no spectacular implosions, no remarkable points of stumbling. The third and last debate between President Barack Obama and contender Governor Mitt Romney was not the most exciting affair, though it showed Obama to be far more accomplished, and the result for Romney acceptable. Sitting down, Obama could assume the role of academic in viva mode, searchingly probing Romney on vulnerable points.

The theme of the debate was foreign policy, a suggestion that irked some commentators. The American empire does both, and suggesting fine lines between issues is not merely hair splitting but foolish. Ezra Klein, writing for The Washington Post (October 21), put it starkly: we shouldn’t be having a foreign policy debate at all. “Gas prices are set on a global market. Flu pandemics with the possibility to kill thousands or even millions of Americans being on farms in Asia. Food safety is no longer a domestic question when you’re importing your grapes from Chile.”

This makes sense on several levels. Global financial instability was hardly discussed – the eurozone crisis, something that poses the greatest threat to the US economy, barely surfaced. Romney has shown himself to be allergic to discussing instability in the European zone, other than to warn voters that the US should not go down the treacherous pathway of welfarism. Financial regulation, a matter that is international, complex and collaborative, becomes a matter of “domestic” interest. Europe is simply somewhere else.

The artificial nature of these distinctions came out at several stages of the debate. Every so often, the candidates would dip into the domestic policy pot for a bit of sustenance (American jobs going overseas; achieving a high standard of education for reasons of competition; saving the car industry from ruin). The links were made clear at stages – Obama suggesting that Romney had invested in Chinese state companies happy to do business with Iran; and companies happy to export American jobs.

In terms of other foreign policy hot topics – security, terrorism and the military – there was hardly anything that separated the candidates. As Obama noted at one point, Romney would do what an Obama administration would do, just more loudly. Both candidates came out with the usual bunk on American exceptionalism, attributing to the US that most tedious and even dangerous of notions: indispensability. The moment the indispensable condition is written into reality and acted, sovereignty – that is, the sovereignty of other states – becomes contingent on what Washington does. “You asked for this, because you wanted leadership.”

Under Obama, we have gotten and will get, more drones. Robotic warfare and mechanised assassination is here to stay. There will, in fact, be no reduction of military spending in real terms, even if certain costly programs have been, and will be, shelved. What the military have asked for, they have received. Romney chooses to see it differently, and prefers an imaginative view of history – seeing the US at its most vulnerable for decades. Undefined “vulnerability” is the boon of military establishments, and Romney desperately wants to court it.

Wanting to seem more aggressive on Syria, Romney openly stated that the rebels be armed under his stewardship. In this sense, Romney is probably being more honest than his somewhat sly counterpart, who has pretended that US involvement in that civil conflict is minimal and restrained by Security Council obstinacy. The same can’t be said for Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Russia.

On Iran, Obama was happy to go into the grim details of crippling a state with sanctions and suggesting that Teheran’s government was at death’s door. This was regime change without a shot fired in anger. Nor would that state get a nuclear weapon under his watch. Ditto Romney, though the governor started sounding comical when he advocated impounding the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for genocide in script. Evidently, First Amendment principles don’t apply to foreign leaders.

Where Romney did seem Martian was in terms of dealing with the emerging power of China. Neither debater wanted to wade too deep on the issue of Beijing’s growing muscle, though both insisted that China “play by the rules” and attempt to come to some accord with Washington. As for Romney, he was happy to brand China during his first day in the White House a fiendish “currency manipulator”. (Incidentally, the Swiss, currency manipulators par excellence, were ignored.) The fact that this would spark a costly trade war had not occurred to him, but then again, an attack of Romnesia might just save him.

With all that nonsense done, three debates that provided less food for thought than food for misguided spectacle, the battle continues to its tight conclusion.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.