The foreign policy debate Monday night was, as predicted, more a test of the two men’s stamina and the American voter’s growing sense of campaign and debate fatigue. The jockeying between the candidates did not produce much daylight between them on foreign policy. In fact, the most substantive differences appeared only when they moved back to domestic and economic issues.
Overall, the debates helped Romney, but after the fiasco of the first debate, Obama righted the ship. Romney used these debates to effectively close the gap and gain some traction. Whether this will be enough to carry virtually all of the battleground states — which he needs to do — will be seen in less than two weeks.
On substance, the major surprise was that Romney offered little major criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy over the past four years. Romney clearly tacked toward a centrist, more moderate position, especially with respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, than has generally been his direction and that of the Republican Right. President Obama took all criticism that was leveled against him by ignoring it and speaking about his policy achievements on whatever issue was being discussed.
He also successfully presented his “commander-in-chief” pose.
In fairness to Romney, discussions of foreign policy favor the sitting president, who, after serving in office for four years, has a clear track record. While Romney managed to present himself as a credible commander in chief, he has no foreign policy experience or record to point to, nor policies to defend. In that respect, Romney was careful and cautious, but again at a cost to those in his own party who are seeking a foreign policy candidate who was more aggressive.
With respect to the Middle East in general and Israel and Iran in particular — a subject which dominated the debate — the differences between the two candidates were not significant. On Syria, Romney moved toward the administration. Neither candidate mentioned Palestinians or the peace process. Both men addressed terrorist threats and Muslim extremists virtually from the same set of talking points.
Many pro-Israel supporters in the United States — as well as most in the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — have a fundamental problem when it comes to foreign policy. They believe that United States policy considerations ought to be evaluated through a prism which asks first and foremost whether a policy is good for Israel. This is not only wrong and foolish, it is dangerous. Both men were pitching for votes among independents, especially those in the swing states. Policies will be made after the election.
But even the most partisan Republicans and Democrats know, whether they admit it or not, that regardless of who is elected on Nov. 6, U.S. policy towards Israel and its safety and security will not change. As was evident in their statements on Monday, both Obama and Romney are committed to the same ultimate ends. No Congress will permit any deviation from an iron-clad support for Israel.
At the end of the day, there is indeed an issue that the American-Jewish community ought to consider as they ponder the 2012 election results one night this winter.
American Jews were pandered to and patronized this election season, especially during the primary season. The result pitted Jew against Jew, but did little to clarify any substantive differences between the two parties. The U.S.-Israel relationship will be fine regardless who wins, but that does not mean the problems in the region are any closer to being resolved over the next four years. Israel needs good relationships and strong friends in Washington. It must not be used as a football to score political touchdowns.