Anyone with a shred of objectivity will certainly agree that President Obama dominated Monday night's "foreign policy debate" from start to finish. His opponent, Governor Romney, did a passable imitation of Obama's first debate performance during this last go-round, right down to the pained expressions, the distracted looks around the room, and the definite aura he emitted of being a man who would rather be anywhere else in the world but on that stage.
Twenty minutes into the thing, Romney turned an alarming shade of pink, and his upper lip began to carry a sheen of sweat that remained in place throughout, serving as a nifty homage to Richard Nixon's damp demeanor, circa 1960, in his debate against John F. Kennedy. Obama, for his part, stared daggers at Romney all night long, and Romney very much appeared to wilt under that hard gaze. The man looked ill for most of the night, and that turned out to be the least of his problems.
Had this been a prize fight, the referee would have called a knock-out right after Mr. Obama laid down this particular bit of chin music. Romney has spent the entire campaign to date doing an admirable impression of Sybil when it comes to his positions, but on the matter of foreign policy, Obama put the bricks to him before ten minutes had passed, and exposed Romney's shape-shifting nonsense once and for all.
"I know you haven't been in a position to actually execute foreign policy, but every time you've offered an opinion, you've been wrong. You said we should have gone into Iraq, despite that fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction. You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day. You indicated that we shouldn't be passing nuclear treaties with Russia despite the fact that 71 senators, Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. You said that, first, we should not have a timeline in Afghanistan. Then you said we should. Now you say maybe or it depends, which means not only were you wrong, but you were also confusing in sending mixed messages both to our troops and our allies."
And then, only a few short minutes later, the Republican candidate for President of the United States of America, in a debate on foreign policy, said exactly this: "Syria is Iran's only ally in the Arab world. It's their route to the sea."
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Willard Mitt Romney - a man who has been running for president since the Mesozoic Age, who has spent an enormous amount of money to surround himself with people who are supposed to explain stuff like geography to him - sat there on national television and showed us all that he still does not know how to read a map. Almost all of Iran's southern border verges on the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, giving them plenty of access to, y'know, the sea...but even if that were not the case, Syria would not be Iran's "route to the sea" because of the giant chunk of land between them called Iraq.
That was it. Not even twenty minutes into the contest, and Romney was sacked from walls to castle...except there was no one there to run up the white flag, and the man spent the remainder of those ninety long minutes holding on for dear life while spewing word salad like a Speak & Spell that had been left out in the rain.
Word salad like this: "Well, my strategy is pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to - to kill them, to take them out of the picture. But my strategy is broader than that. That's - that's important, of course. But the key that we're going to have to pursue is a -- is a pathway to get the Muslim world to be able to reject extremism on its own. We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan. That's not the right course for us. The right course for us is to make sure that we go after the - the people who are leaders of these various anti-American groups and these - these jihadists, but also help the Muslim world."
And, God help us all, this: "I'd make sure that Ahmadinejad is indicted under the Genocide Convention. His words amount to genocide incitation. I would indict him for it. I would also make sure that their diplomats are treated like the pariah they are around the world. The same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa. We need to increase pressure time, and time again on Iran because anything other than a - a - a solution to this, which says - which stops this - this nuclear folly of theirs, is unacceptable to America. And of course, a military action is the last resort. It is something one would only - only consider if all of the other avenues had been - had been tried to their full extent."
And, yeah, this: "Let's talk about China. China has an interest that's very much like ours in one respect, and that is they want a stable world. They don't want war. They don't want to see protectionism. They don't want to see the world break out into - into various forms of chaos, because they have to - they have to manufacture goods and put people to work and they have about 20,000 - 20 million, rather, people coming out of the farms every year coming into the cities, needing jobs."
Word salad. Period.
Every debate has a "moment" to be remembered. On Monday night, the moment came when Obama bent Romney over his knee and spanked him crimson over the issue of military preparedness: "I think Governor Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines. And so the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting slips. It's what are our capabilities."
It was that pedantic. It was that embarrassing. It was that bad. I've been around the political block a few times, and in my entire experience, I have never seen anything like what took place on Monday night. In living memory, there has never been a Republican candidate for president so unprepared for even a basic conversation on foreign policy as Mitt Romney. In terms of the debate contest itself, it was no contest at all. This was not a matter of the Republican candidate bringing a knife to a gunfight. Romney brought a baby rattle to a gunfight, brought a kitten to a gunfight, brought a handkerchief to a gunfight.
Mitt Romney brought himself to a foreign policy debate, and when his wife led him dazed and done from the stage, there was nothing left of him but smoke and sweat.
When he was asked about the use of drones at one point, Mr. Romney replied, "And it's widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes."
That happened, too.
But, see, that's the thing of it. If you're expecting me to raise a mighty whoop for Obama after Monday night, you should shop somewhere else. Obama dominated Romney, but only according to the hard and fast rules we have here in America about making sure any national conversation about our foreign policy stays within a very tight set of boundaries. Debate moderator Bob Schieffer did a masterful job at maintaining the integrity of those boundaries, so that, by the time it was all over, very little of any actual substance had been allowed to blunder into the conversation.
The perfect, horrible irony of this was seen when Mr. Schieffer allowed Romney to run out about a third of the clock by repeating all of his tired nonsense on the economy during a debate on foreign policy...but when the subject came around to the insanely bloated "defense" budget, Romney was allowed to call cuts to that budget "devastating." Obama, for his part, said, "The budget that we are talking about is not reducing our military spending. It is maintaining it."
Neither Schieffer, nor Romney, nor Obama dared to say anything "radical" like, "A very, very small cut in the defense budget would immediately resolve a large amount of our concern over the economy, would immediately halt all this talk of ending Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, defunding public schools, closing post offices, and privatizing health care, because a very, very small cut in the defense budget would give us all the money we need, and more, to keep these things solvent. We're not actually broke, America. We just need to realign our priorities."
See how that works? Romney talks about cutting all sorts of programs, Obama fights him on it, but neither they nor the moderator has any interest in discussing the giant, bloated, over-weaponized solution sitting in the middle of the room.
Cut the defense budget? We don't talk about that stuff here in America. The moderator didn't bring it up, and the candidates made sure everyone knew they were all about "keeping America safe," because in the paint-by-numbers way we do politics around here, that is what passes for heady, heavy discourse...and that is how you narrow the debate, and maintain America's status as a colony of low-information voters who put up with losing their economic future while thinking Iran needs Syria to get to the water, because their candidate said so.
The entire discussion on Afghanistan was an exercise in vapidity. A very direct question was asked of both candidates - "What is your position on the use of drones?" - that Mr. Obama was allowed to evade by deploying his own word salad without ever approaching an answer. At one point, Obama spoke of visiting the victims of missile strikes in Israel, and the awful parallel between his sentiments about that visit and what has been happening during his drone war was left unsaid. Will anyone visit the victims of missiles inaccurately fired from those drones?
The question of climate change as a national security threat never came up; for those of you playing along at home, our dying planet went 0 for 4 in getting any debate mentions at all. The terrifying issues facing our war veterans never came up. All the hard, important lessons we need to remember from our experience with Iraq and George W. Bush never really came up in any meaningful sense.
So very much never came up.
Charles P. Pierce, in an article written hours before Monday's debate even began, predicted the following:
Trade is foreign policy. The environment is foreign policy. Energy policy is foreign policy. Human rights are foreign policy. Drought is foreign policy. Starvation is foreign policy. War is generally only foreign policy when one of those other things I mentioned get completely out of control. However, as I suspect we will see argued enthusiastically from both sides tonight, war, and not its historic causes, has come to define foreign policy. Increasingly, it has come to define us as a nation as well. This is a problem that, I predict, will not be addressed at all this evening in Boca Raton, where the rich people play and the children of their gardeners fight our wars.
Obama won the debate according to the sorry, withered, anemic way we measure victory in modern American politics, and his performance on Monday night - coupled with Romney's truly awful display - will likely serve him well two weeks from now. But those Americans who tuned in to watch are now exactly 0% more informed on a variety of life-and-death issues for having done so, and that counts as a loss for us all.
It's theater, some will say, what do you expect?
I expect more, damn it, and every time we lower our expectations because we've forgotten what it is to demand better things from the people we elect or seek to elect, we get exactly nothing, and the self-fulfilling prophesy of futility spins another turn.
After so many years of brutal and unnecessary war, after all the fear tactics, the plastic-sheeting-and-duct-tape-O-God-we're-all-gonna-die nonsense, the weapons of mass destruction lies, all the deep offenses to the Constitution and the basic rule of law, all the flag-draped coffins that have come home, all the maimed veterans who are still coming home, all the wasted potential of more than a decade lost to stupidity and greed and hatred, after all that has happened to this nation under the guise of "foreign policy," we the people deserve more than the thin gruel that was served on Monday night.