Published: October 23, 2012
PARIS — Debates are more about scoring points than elucidating problems, just as presidential elections turn more on perceptions of character than on policy promises. But even so, Monday night’s American presidential debate on foreign policy presented a skewed vision of the world, even one defined by American national interests.
Iran was mentioned more than 45 times, Israel and China more than 30 times each, Afghanistan 29 times andMali at least four times. NATO was not uttered, and Europe was referred to only once — in a list of allies reeled off by President Obama — and the euro and its crisis were not mentioned at all.
Mitt Romney did, however, state twice that he would not let the United States and its domestic debt go the way of Greece.
Issues that Mr. Obama highlighted earlier in his term, like nuclear nonproliferation and the problems of climate change, were barely mentioned. In fact, the word climate was not to be found. Mexico was not mentioned, either, and it is pretty close to home. There was no discussion of the progressive decline of the West in terms of global trade or of the rise of competing ideologies, like China’s autocratic capitalism, that challenge Western ideas of liberalism, human rights and the power of the individual.
Even Russia and the success or failure of Mr. Obama’s “reset” policy and the administration’s failed bet on former President Dmitri A. Medvedev barely got a mention. And there seemed to be a general denial, suggested Barthélémy Courmont, a political scientist, of what is a common analysis, which is the inexorable weakening of American global influence, as countries like China, Brazil and India begin to wield greater regional and economic power. “At a time when a growing number of analysts ponder the decline of the United States,” he wrote in the French newspaper Le Monde, the candidates engaged in “self-persuasion, to insist on the ‘necessary’ character of American power.”
In general, there was a sense among analysts and observers outside the United States that these were two intelligent, competent candidates who do not differ overly much on the central issues of foreign policy and were actually debating with domestic constituencies in swing states foremost in mind.
The debate over Iran and Israel was really about Jewish voters in Florida, while the debate over China was really about jobs in Ohio and the Midwest, noted François Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research, based in Paris. And that makes perfect sense in a tight American presidential election, where most voters do not consider foreign policy a priority, Mr. Heisbourg said.
“The balance was more toward 9/11 than the pivot to Asia,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “There was more about risks and threats than friends and allies. Both spoke in a Hobbesian world as tough characters willing to deal with monsters out there, not as people spreading the gospel of working with friends and allies to make the world a better place or spreading U.S. influence to help people get along.”
Le Monde said on its Web site, “For each question, the two candidates came back to the economic situation of the country, proof that this is the electorate’s main preoccupation.”
Mr. Obama even spoke of China as an “adversary,” although he said it was also “a potential partner in the international community if it’s following the rules.” Mr. Romney said essentially the same thing, speaking of confrontation over trade and not about working with China on issues like North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. For Mr. Heisbourg, “Both were wrong on China, portraying it as an adversary, but each got the message across about defending jobs in Ohio.”
Not surprisingly, the attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last month in Libya was an important topic, leading to an essentially roundabout discussion of Syria, where Mr. Romney’s sole difference with Mr. Obama was his willingness to provide arms to the rebels. But both agreed that no American troops should be used against Syria.
But given all the praise of the successful intervention in Libya (the vital — even leading — roles of France and Britain went unmentioned), there was no discussion of why what was a powerful motivation for American intervention in Libya is not relevant in Syria, where many more people have been killed by another “dictator.” That is a question that absorbs many in the Middle East and Europe, however complicated the responses.
There was hand-wringing about the progress of radical Islam, both in chaotic countries and through the ballot box, as a result of the turmoil of the “Arab awakening.” But there was little specificity about causes or cures.
There was no mention, let alone discussion, of the role of Turkey or its dilemma as a Muslim nation sharing a border with Syria, no discussion of the aging royal family ofSaudi Arabia and its sponsorship of radical and conservative Islam, no mention of Somalia or Islamist threats to allies like Jordan and Morocco. There was a glancing reference to thePalestinians, but no discussion of their divisions, of the role of Hamas, of the separate status of Gaza, of the weakening grip of Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement, of what might happen if and when Mr. Abbas, the Palestinian president and leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, leaves the scene.
And there was no criticism of Israel, its settlements or its occupation of the West Bank. Mr. Romney did say that Mr. Obama had not visited Israel as president even after his 2009 visit to Cairo in which he pledged a new era in relations with the Muslim world.
Mr. Obama responded with descriptions of an earlier visit as a legislator, but Mr. Romney missed an opportunity to respond tartly, for even top Obama aides concede that failing to go quickly to Israel after Cairo to make a similar speech and then calling for a “settlement freeze” in East Jerusalem, instead of in the larger West Bank, were errors.
Even on the question of American military strength, there was little debate other than numbers. Mr. Obama is right that the United States has more aircraft carriers than any other nation, and got off a good line about bayonets and horses and the game Battleship. But the United States is reported to have only 11 carriers, and carriers are increasingly vulnerable to more sophisticated longer-range missile attacks.
As for Europe, the lack of attention made perfect sense. Europe is an ally, not a policy dilemma, and the crisis of the euro zone has been technical, lengthy and tedious, and seems to be losing steam. America’s own debt problems dwarf those of Europe.
But the French daily Libération asked: “And what about Europe? It isn’t far from Australia in the competition for the status of the most forgotten continent.” But silence was good for Europe, the paper said. “At least the euro crisis isn’t brandished by Obama as a major source of economic trouble for America, and Romney has stopped making ‘European socialism’ his campaign scarecrow.”
On the Internet and on Twitter there were thousands of reactions to the debate. But speaking for many was @jonathanwatts, a Latin American correspondent for The Guardian, who wrote: “Obama won this debate. World lost. Apart from 5 mins on China, it was all Middle East. Where was LatAm, Europe, climate?”
Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.
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