Tough Talk on the Middle East Needs Strategy to Back It ; the Obama-Romney Foreign Policy Debate Will Finally Force the Pair to Spell out America's Future Role in the World

By Applebaum, Anne | The Evening Standard (London, England), October 15, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Tough Talk on the Middle East Needs Strategy to Back It ; the Obama-Romney Foreign Policy Debate Will Finally Force the Pair to Spell out America's Future Role in the World


Applebaum, Anne, The Evening Standard (London, England)


IS THIS the least interesting American presidential election in recent memory? If one were to judge by the British press coverage, one would have to conclude that it is. There have been few tepid profiles of the President, some half-hearted coverage of the debates, an amused burst of annoyance when Mitt Romney came to London -- and that's about it.

Perhaps it's fair enough, then, that the candidates, particularly the Republican, appear to feel a corresponding lack of interest in foreigners. At his convention, Romney devoted but a single paragraph of his keynote speech to foreign policy. He did not mention Iraq or Afghanistan, and he did not refer to the US military at all. With the exception of Condoleezza Rice, senior Republicans most closely associated with Republican foreign policy were not in the audience either. Neither ex-president George W Bush nor ex-vice president Dick Cheney appeared at Romney's convention.

At his own convention, President Obama did laud his administration's achievements, mostly those which had reversed the policies of Bush . "I promised to end the war in Iraq. We did. I promised to refocus on the terrorists who actually attacked us on 9/ 11. We have ... A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al Qaeda is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead."

And then he went back to discussing the economy, unemployment, the economy, health care and the economy again. He has been doing so ever since.

Fate, ill fortune and (perhaps) next week's foreign policy debate have now forced both candidates to look outwards.

The terrorist assault on the American consulate in Benghazi last month is the ostensible excuse.

The incident was a tragedy for the four Americans who died, a popular and successful US ambassador among them. It was a disaster for Libya, a country which had been making steady progress since its civil war ended last summer.

It was also catnip for Mitt Romney, who inelegantly took advantage of the disaster and attacked the President, allegedly for sympathising with the terrorists.

After making that claim, Romney seemed briefly ridiculous -- at least until the White House sent out a series of people to brief the press on the attack, none of whom had the slightest idea what had happened, making the President seem even more ridiculous than his rival.

Admittedly, the Libya incident was confusing. It occurred just as a series of violent protests broke out elsewhere in the region, and the American UN ambassador, among others, declared that it had been part of the same wave. As more details emerged, she was proven wrong. The Republicans cried "cover-up". Myriad investigations have now been launched but they aren't important. What matters instead is that Romney thinks he has finally found the President's foreign policy weak spot. Last week he made his case in a major speech.

In effect, Romney accused the President of weakness. A Romney White House, by contrast, would use American power "firmly and actively". Though he has said the same sort of thing before, this time he went a step further.

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