A rudimentary display of U.S. foreign policy will take place tonight in Boca Raton, Florida between President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney.
Interestingly, America's mainstream media has taken to hyping Monday's presidential debate with a common narrative: "How the Obama-Romney foreign policy debate could determine the election. With turmoil increasing in world hot spots, foreign policy and national security have become major presidential campaign issues. From China to Israel, Iran to Syria, stateless terrorists to struggling alliances, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will have plenty to debate Monday night."
"If, at the start of the general election campaign, you told a seasoned political strategist in either party that the fate of the presidential race could well hinge on the foreign-policy-focused third debate, the reaction would have ranged from an eye roll to laughter," writes The Washington Post. "And yet, here we are. President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney head to Boca Raton, Fla., for their final debate Monday night with national polls suggesting that the race is tied and with the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, dominating the headlines."
Where to start with this manufactured slant? Does one dead ambassador equal the difference between relevant and unimportant foreign policy in America?
There's no denying factual sections of the media's deceptive hyperbole. In terms of foreign policy, American voters are looking for a "tough" but "responsible" president to confront terrorist threats and international powers. They want someone that won't start a reckless war with Iran but will respond to terrorist pinpricks and plots that never fully develop. Essentially, Americans want their country to maintain global supremacy at an efficient cost. Most now seek limited military engagement abroad on the road to fiscal responsibility at home, a perfect combination for the rise of drone warfare and unconventional Special operations. However these matters address America's national security before its raw foreign policy.
Obama himself told reporters over the weekend, "Spoiler alert: we got Bin Laden." This talking point will make for an extra long debate.
National security understandably becomes more relevant when some visceral incident has just occurred. However foreign policy remains a low set of priorities - the mainstream agenda clearly believes that it needs to exaggerate Monday night's significance. Foreign policy areas themselves will be debated at the shallowest levels. Not even Libya's revolution, from the beginning to NATO's invasion to the country's future, will receive a thorough examination. Neither will seriously engage U.S. policy in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain or other coverups that support U.S. interests over popular movements. Syria is more likely to descend into a brawl over semantics than hard policy.
Worst still, Romney has encouraged his base's anti-Americanism by blaming the Middle East's turmoil on Obama's "abdication of leadership." Obama has failed to uphold his own promise to engage the Arab world, instead consenting to a vast counterrevolution in the region, but Romney dangerously preaches the return to an "American Century."
Larger issues like China may not be movable by one or the other; Russia should cause equal trouble for both.
Each candidate brings a different set of problems to the same table, potentially resulting in similar outcomes. While Obama and Romney diverge widest on the possibility of war against Tehran, both of their regional agendas operate on a steep Iranian tilt. Both will try their hardest to convince the audience that they support Israel more than the other, and ultimately leave the Palestinians in the dust on their way to promising a hollow two-state solution. Their policies are nearly identical in Afghanistan - both want the majority of U.S. troops out by 2014 so long as they can deploy a residual force afterward. Obama publicly claims that Afghanistan's war will end in 2014, and he may prepare a surprise for Monday night, but Iraq's ending says otherwise.
The moderator is unlikely to fact check Obama's wayward policy in Iraq, which the President says he's looking forward to debating. Dozens of bombings and shootings continue to plague the country each month, often as Obama declares the war over from 9,000 miles away. Many large-scale attacks have been claimed by al-Qaeda in Iraq, a group that didn't exist before U.S. troops arrived in 2003 and could have 5-10 years of life in it. The response to these security incidents and Iraq's general reconstruction has also been obstructed by the poor leadership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The Obama administration's passivity towards Baghdad's political crisis has resulted in a gradual loss of influence with the divisive al-Maliki, who retained his position in 2010 with U.S. assistance. Obama's policy in Iraq qualifies as one of his worst, but he will spin it into one of his highlights.
The brightest light, of course, will shine upon Osama bin Laden's dead body. Here Obama will hit Romney hardest to score as many points as possible, bludgeoning him on a topic that Romney has no real control over. He will mention his drone achievements and few to none of his failures. Obama could speak of his kills in Yemen but will certainly not mention how unpopular he has become in Yemen. He will rout al-Qaeda on more than one occasion, "from Pakistan to Somalia" before "staying alert" in new hotspots. He may go near Mali if he's feeling bold, to highlight the international coalition being put together by U.S. allies, but avoiding al-Qaeda's other hideouts makes for smarter politics. Obama won't mention that al-Qaeda cells in Iraq crossed into Syria.
Romney will take these punches and throw back as many as he can design. Both will do whatever they can to distract voters from actual issues, instead emphasizing terrorism and the type of American "leadership" that translates into hegemony. U.S. media has already responded in a similar fashion by placing terrorism at the top of their scorecard. "Voters finally get to know Obama and Romney's foreign policies" - when Monday is far too late to make informed decisions. Unfortunately those seeking a deeper conversation on foreign policy will leave empty handed, and those comforted by the shallows will move onto the next channel when the debate is over.
Only a major screw up, not any real wisdom, moves the political needle on election day.