Watching last night’s “foreign policy” debate was like looking at Ptolemy’s map of the ancient world: Levant, Levant, Levant. Nothing else, neither mythical realms of giants, like China, nor crumbling lands of barbarian kings, like Europe, intruded on the mono-focus of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. For foreign-policy wonks like myself, that made for a frustrating and boring night, leavened only by Jonah’s numerous tweets on confused mullahs parsing what “smaller class size” really means. A few thoughts, though:
1. The Benghazi fade. Romney decided to let it go by, for whatever reason. He had a week to figure out how to pin an indefensible policy and an unforgivable cover-up right on Obama, but failed to push the button. It’s now a dead letter in this campaign. Conservative partisans are not happy. As one Washington figure emailed me: “How could Romney not be prepared for the Benghazi question?” It still feels like a missed opportunity.
2. Obama’s condescension . . . er, scrappiness. NPR led off their 8 a.m. news brief with the President’s most dismissive, if not condescending, response, that the U.S. military has fewer horses and bayonets than in 1917 (in response to Romney’s criticism that the Navy was at its smallest size since that year). It came across as pedantic, a professorial (sorry, lectorial) quip, but mean-spirited. As was Obama’s cheap shot on Romney’s China investments, and the tired 1980s-1950s-1920s line. Liberal partisans may have loved it, but I wonder how middle-of-the-road voters (assuming any were watching) took it. Dismissive is not witty. Nor is it presidential.
3. Tortoise v. hare. In all three debates, Romney gained steam as the night wore on. His answer to the first question in each three debates was usually his weakest of the night. In the second and third debates, Obama came out swinging but faded when Romney countered with facts and repeated his core lines of attack. On television, Obama looked tired around two-thirds of the way through last night, and his answers were rambling. The best he could muster was to call Romney inconsistent and wrong on his foreign-policy statements. Romney effectively refuted that line of attack, stayed focused, and his closing statement was the most visionary of either throughout the debate.
4. The vision thing. Despite Romney’s closing, the most disconcerting part of last night was the absence of the rest of the world. No substantive discussion about China, nothing about North Korea. No concerns about slowing economic growth in India, Japan, or China. Nothing about Chinese assertiveness in the seas of Asia or its growing military. Nothing about narco-terrorism in Mexico. Nothing about the coming day of reckoning for the aging House of Saud. No worries about a crisis in the euro zone or the collapse of Greece, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and the rest. Not even melting icecaps. All these affect America, but neither candidate made a case to the American people why we should care about — or even know about — the rest of the world.
Yet, as Yuval wrote, it was for Romney a Hippocratic night above all: Do no harm. In that, he succeeded. Judging by the response at the American Enterprise Institute’s public viewing event, he did more than that: he looked competent, presidential, and confident. He forcefully defended Israel, slapped down Obama’s global “apology tour,” and showed bipartisanship on relatively non-controversial things (like blowing up terrorists with drones).
Now, if only anyone other than both sides’ partisans had been watching.