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Trudy Rubin: In troubled times, a troubling debate

  • Philadelphia Inquirer
  • Published Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, at 12 a.m.

The third presidential debate was supposed to showcase the candidates’ foreign policies.

Instead, we saw two candidates tap-dance around the serious issues to appeal to voters who want their government to turn inward after a decade of conflict abroad. This country is in a world of trouble. Yet with an eye on the polls, both candidates avoided any serious discussion of the real challenges ahead.

The prime example of avoidance was Mitt Romney, whose stunning foreign-policy U-turn seemed designed to woo a war-weary public. Presumably Romney was trolling for women voters who still lean toward President Obama.

The Republican candidate tried to erase his former militarist image by morphing into a virtual clone of Obama on Iran, Syria and Afghanistan. On the latter, Romney adopted Obama’s position that we’ll be out in 2014, full stop, without repeating his previous mantra that he’d listen to the military. (Neither candidate discussed what he’d do if Afghanistan then collapsed back into a jihadi state.)

However, Romney surpassed Obama on the peace front, repeatedly using the terms “peace” and “peaceful,” which Obama never uttered. “We can’t kill our way out of this mess,” he said of Iran, after previously endorsing a possible military strike on Tehran in the next six months.

These contradictions leave one guessing at Romney’s real intentions, especially since his team includes foreign-policy advisers who touted the Iraq War and are eager for an Iran war. Certainly, the debate failed to clarify his real positions.

That is especially important on Iran, where despite his new image Romney once again stated that Iran can’t be allowed to acquire the “capability” to make a bomb.

The importance of that code word probably eluded most listeners. “Capability” means Tehran has enriched a quantity of uranium that, if further enriched, could be used in a bomb. It does not mean that Iran has actually developed a weapon. “Capability” is the red line used by Romney’s friend Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who says Iran may have it in the next six months.

(Obama said that Tehran shouldn’t be allowed to produce an actual weapon and that “premature military action” would be mistaken. Top U.S. military officials, and many top Israeli security experts, agree with him.)

Moderator Bob Schieffer never asked Romney whether he would go to war with Iran on Israel’s timetable, even if this choice means a new Mideast war in 2013. This was a discussion the American public deserved to hear.

Both candidates were deep into avoidance when it came to Syria. Romney talked tough about arming the Syrian rebels. But parse his verbiage and it sounds as if he would outsource this task to the Gulf states, which are prone to helping Islamists. Obama talked about the danger of arming those who might harm us. Yet his administration has failed to devote sufficient resources to determine which armed groups we might be able to deal with.

Should Obama win, I believe he will have to pay more attention to Syria; if this war continues indefinitely, it will further radicalize the entire region. Yet neither candidate wanted to illuminate a key Mideast problem to which there is no good outcome.

Astonishingly, Romney said our objective in Syria should be ensuring that a friendly government emerges in Damascus. This fantasy is a throwback to the Bush era, when the White House thought it could impose its will on the region.

In reality, the best we can hope for in Syria (and in most of the region) is a “frenemy” government that is not a foe, but not a friend either. Romney fails to grasp (and Obama has learned the hard way) that democratic elections don’t always produce the results the United States wants. Not something to talk about at a debate.

Which brings us to the most glaring flaw of the third set-to: the candidates’ failure to seriously debate America’s role in the world.

Of course, we already know a lot about Obama’s thinking. He grasps that America can’t lead unless it repairs its paralyzed political system and invests in education, infrastructure and research. Nations don’t respect a superpower whose legislature is frozen, whose roads and bridges are fraying, and whose students lag behind those in Shanghai and Singapore.

He also grasps that in today’s world, America’s power is not what it once was. Other regional powers are growing stronger and feeling less need to kowtow to Washington. Think China, Turkey, Brazil and Russia. America is often still first among equals, but can’t assume others will bow to its whims.

Yet the president’s understanding hasn’t always led to smart policy. One would hope that in a second term Obama would be tougher with frenemies such as Egypt, China and Pakistan. One would also hope he’d be more aware that fine speeches alone – especially in the Mideast – are insufficient to guarantee results.

But Monday’s debate revealed a Romney who didn’t recognize global changes. He seemed unaware that the United States was no longer the unipolar power of the 1990s, no matter how much military hardware it has.

His talk of peace through strength seemed focused on huge increases in defense spending along with big tax cuts. When last tried in the Reagan era, this formula produced giant deficits; a similar tack will further diminish America’s global standing.

If you wanted to know how a President Romney would handle the real world, this debate left you frustrated and cold.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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