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Wednesday, October 17, 2012  

The Real Benghazi Debate Scandal

Our foster daughter used to love playing Angry Birds. She would happily put her finger to each bird as it came into the slingshot and then, every single time, pull the slingshot toward the targets and release the birds in the opposite direction, sending them soaring offscreen.

This, it occurred to me as I watched the infamous Benghazi exchange from last night's debate, is basically how Mitt Romney has decided to approach foreign policy questions. For some reason, he imagines the issue area is a strength for him--foreign policy advantage being, I guess, the phantom limb of GOP politics--when it most certainly isn't. Yet instead of truly capitalizing on the serious shortcomings of the administration's record, he promises the same policies layered with lots more belligerence, which is more or less exactly the opposite of what Americans want and what an actual debate would look like.

Consider that Romney tripped himself up last night not only by being egregiously wrong about a matter of fact, but over whether the president used the right word. As the Bush years reached their close, liberal commentators identified among neoconservatives something they called the "Green Lantern theory" of foreign policy, in which willpower itself shifted the nature of reality. Romney has taken this one step farther, by embracing what I would call the theory of presidential incantation. Somehow everything could have turned out much better if our Iran, Syria, and Afghan policies were framed with different words by the president. I would call this sort of view childish, but I don't know any actual children who think that saying "the teacher is a meanie" will cause the classroom order to tumble in an instant. However beyond a trite demand that Obama use harsher words for Assad, the Iranian regime, or whomever--half the time in neglect of the fact that those harsher words have already been used--there is little substantive disagreement over policy in these areas.

And that's really a shame. A different Mitt Romney, one who hadn't spent the last five years cultivating a whatever-it-takes attitude toward the GOP base and power brokers, could have opposed the Libya intervention and hit the president over having us too involved in a strategically meaningless country. Or he could have exposed the Afghan surge as the directionless failure that it pretty much is, quite tragically. Or he could have accused the president of moving us perilously close to intervention in Syria, which we don't want, don't need, and don't know how to conclude. The problem, of course, is that Romney is boxed into a position where all he can do is demand further intervention in Libya, doubling down on an unpopular and unsuccessful Afghan policy, and more unilateral action in Syria.

Partisan politics has a way of amplifying minor differences against a background of elite consensus. Romney and Obama both support assertive policies in Libya and Syria (more assertive than I think is appropriate, for what it's worth), they both support aggressive policies in Iran (with one, albeit meaningful, difference over what constitutes a "red line" in the nuclear program), they both support open-ended and unconditional aid to Israel, they both support free trade, neither will start a trade war with China, neither will pass any new gun control laws, and so on. And perhaps not coincidentally, these areas of elite consensus are also areas where neither party represents popular sentiment very closely. There is plenty of room, in public opinion at least, for a candidate to run in those areas, but there is no elite support for any of it, and so each side is left using rhetorical feints to co-opt viewpoints they aren't seriously engaging with.

This is a serious liability in our politics, especially when it comes to things like lengthy foreign deployments with long-term and totally unknowable consequences. We need a better conversation about our role in Libya (not to mention other places in the world) than either candidate gave us last night.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 2:12 PM
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