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A Foreign Policy Debate Fumble

The fascinating thing about last night’s debate is how different President Obama’s responses seem when read in transcript as opposed to watched on television. Obama has mastered the art of looking as if he’s tough on terrorists and for a robust America, but his words say otherwise. He got away with evasive and downright false statements—while Governor Romney spent too much time making sure that he wasn’t seen as an advocate of costly American interventions in the Muslim world. Compared to the higher quality of debate on economic topics in recent weeks, the candidates’ discussion of Libya and Syria was a disappointment.

Speaking of his response to the Benghazi attacks, Obama seemed to have his priorities backward. He listed three goals he had in responding to the attacks, ending with: “most importantly, that we would go after those who killed Americans, and we would bring them to justice.” Yet it is obvious that the most important item was the first one he listed, preventing the deaths in the first place through proper security.

Obama’s response was also inaccurate. He said, “When we received that phone call, I immediately made sure that, number one, we did everything we could to secure those Americans who were still in harm’s way.” But this isn’t true. Bing West pointed out yesterday in an excellent National Review article that Chris Stephens and the other Americans besieged in our Benghazi consulate received no military aid for seven hours. Embassy security staff were sent by plane from Tripoli, 400 miles away, but our fighter jets 480 miles away in Sicily were never mobilized, though they could have arrived in an hour and located the source of the mortar fire into our compound.

Romney chose not to take the bait of calling Obama out—doubtless counseled against it after blowback following his early response to Obama’s handling of the situation. But he could have avoided the pitfall of seeming to politicize a tragedy by saying something like, “If any American embassy is attacked in the future, we must have plans in place for some of our troops to respond within a brief span of time.” Or, “in the future, our leadership must look not for excuses for those who violate the immunity of diplomats worldwide, but for ways to ensure our diplomats’ security.”

As far as bringing to justice those who murdered four Americans in Benghazi, the man suspected of organizing the attacks, Ahmed Abu Khattala, spoke to a New York Times reporter last Thursday in a Benghazi hotel and is still at large. But Romney failed to, or chose not to, emphasize this point.

Both candidates spoke of the need for economic development and gender equality in the Muslim world and it was refreshing to hear both men insist on the basic truth that countries where half the population do not participate in public life are not successful.  Women and girls listening in Libya and Egypt and Tunisia must have taken heart. But on Syria, both candidates offered little beyond platitudes.

Romney and Obama proposed similar moves—supporting the overthrow of Assad while stopping short of military aid. The president spoke of ensuring that “we’re not putting arms in the hands of folks who eventually could turn them against us or our allies in the region.” Romney agreed that “we do need to make sure that they don’t have arms that get into the wrong hands. Those arms could be used to hurt us down the road.” He made it clear that his support stopped well short of American involvement. “And finally, we don’t want to have military involvement there. We don’t want to get drawn into a military conflict.”

Romney faltered when he began to differentiate his response from the Obama administration’s. He correctly took them to task for passing the buck to the UN, which did little as thousands perished. If this is what “steady, thoughtful leadership when it comes to Syria” is about, it’s hard to know what waffling looks like. And then he hung fire, and Obama interrupted. When Romney finally stated his view of what should have been done, it turned out to be less than eloquent:

We should have taken a leading role—not militarily, but a leading role organizationally, governmentally, to bring together the parties there to find responsible parties. … the insurgents are highly disparate. They haven’t come together. They haven’t formed a unity group, a council of some kind. That needs to happen. America can help that happen.

Romney might have called into question Obama’s years of appeasing Assad and his main backer, Iran. He might have asked why Obama, as commander in chief, seemed so blindsided by the Arab Spring. After all, Hillary Clinton was calling Mubarak’s government “stable” on January 25, 2011—the very day the Egyptian revolution began. Instead, Romney turned to the arena where he feels more comfortable, improving America’s economy. He was probably right to do so—this is after all where the votes are. But it’s a pity the Romney camp let Obama get away with his essentially dishonest account of the Benghazi attack response and his near-indifference on Syria. Perhaps the sad truth is that neither our president nor the man I hope will replace him have really paid much attention to the Arab Spring.

 

Photo Credit: Blaise T. Nutter 

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