This was less a debate about foreign policy than a contest between alternative versions of reality.
President Obama described a world in which America is stronger now than when he came into office; a formerly divided globe has been united, and “our alliances have never been stronger.” Obama’s military budget is “driven by strategy,” not politics. Throughout his presidency, he has treated Israel as America’s greatest ally in the Middle East. In Syria, America is “playing the leadership role.” In the meticulous efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear program, “We’ve been able to mobilize the world.”
In Obama’s world, the greatest threat to national security “will continue to be terrorist networks,” so “we have to remain vigilant.” But by and large, America has stood with democratic movements in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and has degraded al-Qaeda. In the interest of rebuilding American strength, it is now time to focus on ramping up government spending back home — with more government programs for road-building, bridge-building, school-building, and subsidies for federally approved research and technology that will keep us at the cutting edge.
Governor Mitt Romney described a far more dangerous world, in which a nuclear Iran is the greatest threat to security, and since Obama took office, the bottom line is that “We’re four years closer to a nuclear Iran.” Obama has encouraged our enemies to regard America as weak, with his “apology tour” of the Middle East, his snubs to Israel, his silence during Iran’s 2009 mass protests, and his cuts to defense. There’s a rising tide of tumult and chaos in the Middle East, with al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups rushing in.
In Romney’s world, 30,000 people are dead in Syria, and Assad is still in power. North Korea is continuing to export nuclear technology. Russia is backing away from nonproliferation deals with the U.S. American influence is not growing but receding, “in part because of the failure of the president to deal with our economic challenges at home; in part because of our withdrawal from our commitment to our military,” and in part because of “the turmoil with Israel.” And America is headed toward $20 trillion in government debt. What’s needed to restore America is less government intervention at home, and stronger American leadership abroad.
Missing from this final encounter between the two candidates was any serious discussion of the recent September 11 terrorist assault that murdered our ambassador and three other Americans on U.S. diplomatic turf in Benghazi, Libya, as well as the bizarre explanations and buck-passing that followed. Romney, for whatever reasons, gave all this scant mention. Obama recast it as an exercise in adept presidential leadership and imminent justice. All of which is a pity, because a genuine debate about this horrific event, with the images of the charred and plundered U.S. consulate still fresh in our memory, might have gone far to clarify to the American public exactly which of the two worlds above we are actually living in.
— Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and heads its Investigative Reporting Project.