The last debate wasn’t just about foreign policy. It was about the diverse and difficult responsibilities of being president of the United States.
“Bullfight critics ranked in rows crowd the enormous plaza full, but he’s the only one who knows, and he’s the man who fights the bull.”
For me, that sums up the debate. The president won. He was the commander-in-chief and he played a strong hand well. This isn’t a foreign policy blog, but if you step back from the absurdities of the charge/counter-charge of a campaign, he and Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta have carried out foreign policy well in an incredibly difficult and confusing time.
Governor Romney did not do badly, but he is like a pilot: there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots. He doesn’t have any particularly new ideas, and the ones he hints at having are either profoundly wrong, profoundly dangerous, or both.
“Hint” is a good verb. He hints at deep disapproval. He’d be stronger, firmer, altogether better. Events would be less disorderly, and the world would dance to his commands. But he actually wouldn’t do anything differently. Stay in Iraq or Afghanistan? Divorce Pakistan? Invade Iran? Put troops in Syria? Really show China what’s what? On all of these issues you get the impression that he actually doesn’t have a different policy; he is depending on his strong jaw and magnetic personality to command events. Should he actually win, his policy would be exactly the same, except he might get himself bullied into a hasty bombing campaign against Iran. Does anyone think “Bibi” wouldn’t be over in a heartbeat to collect his receivable?
The major preoccupation of that alternate-universe White House would be attempting to demonstrate constantly that there was some sort of difference from the Obama policies. Heck, maybe the world really will sit up and do right with a President Romney. But trapped as he is between the neocons who have learned nothing and President Obama’s mostly successful policies, he was reduced to throat-clearing and ankle-biting. And if his whole approach depends on the argument that he’d do the same things but somehow better, you have to remember that this is man who managed to insult the United Kingdom over the management of the Olympics. (Yes, they used to be enemies, and we all remember the unpleasantness of 1812.)
This was all sort of fun. But I did have a somewhat deeper thought — a profound appreciation for America and for how tough being president is. A really long time ago, I was in a small group of appointees with President-elect Carter a month or so before the inauguration. (I know the fashion now is to be contemptuous of President Carter, but I’m not. I revered the man, loved working for him, and still revere him.) Anyway, I was mostly in such awe that I was even there — how did someone from Loudoun County High School get here? — that I couldn’t talk. But I could think, sort of. What I thought about was the two faces of the president’s job. On the one hand, he had to grapple with the actual issues, facts, and arguments as they affected the most important nation in the world, and then he had to turn around and persuade a nation of 225 million people (at that time).