On foreign policy at least, there is little to distinguish between the two primary presidential candidates of the 2012 US elections
“You’ve now heard months of campaigning, three debates, and way too many TV commercials.”
– President Barack Obama
Thus began Obama’s concluding remarks at Monday’s US foreign policy debate between the two main contenders in the US presidential election 2012; perhaps the statement that enjoyed the most universal support from all sides of the political divide. After months of inordinately costly campaigning and repetitive polemic, the foreign policy debate was the grand finale, a fortnight before Election Day on November 6th. But it is not merely its timing that made it perhaps the most important event of the election campaign.
The role of the US in the world is one of the most contested discussions in modern times. Particularly in a post 9/11 world and with the ensuing “War on Terror”, US foreign policy has often been written more in the blood of innocent victims than of criminals, as it has veered down a frequently reckless path of retribution. The Bush era wreaked two of the longest and bloodiest wars in the nation’s history. The result has been a broken Iraq, suffering from deadly sectarian conflict and widespread administrative corruption. In Afghanistan the story is similar, with the added reality of the Taliban’s growing presence and hold in the region.
The election of Obama in 2008 had brought with it a hope that the US would break from this period of troubled foreign relations that preceded him. Yet this hope too was swiftly revoked; rather than reduce the bloodshed and remedy the draconian foreign policy of the Bush era, the Obama administration has descended into an alternative form of warfare with its latest weapon: drones. Under this administration, and reportedly under Obama’s direct supervision, the expansion of drone wars has been incredible, and the human impact indescribable. For a few killed militant targets, are scores of murdered civilians – “collateral damage” for an administration that would rather not treat them as any different in humanity and innocence than their own citizens murdered in the World Trade Center. Under this administration, in spite of a campaign promise to close the legal limbo and centre of inhumane abuse that is Guantanamo Bay, the prison remains open with prisoners left languishing for years, even when cleared for release, and driven to despair.
Under Obama, foreign countries have continued to be infiltrated, such as Yemen and Pakistan, and targets eliminated, along with innocent women and children, with little regard for sovereignty or law. Obama “approved” the assassination of American cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Yet one can’t help but wonder: what happened to due process and the rule of law, even for one’s own citizens? How does flouting due process not align us with the extremists we condemn? And how can the leader of one country “approve” an assassination within another sovereign state? For all the hope many pinned on Obama, it seems little had changed.
It is for these reasons that Monday’s debate was so anticipated. One was desperate to see a shift in policy in either candidate and scrutinise their approaches to the rest of the world. In a nation so defined by its foreign policy in modern times, no debate was more relevant than this.
And the anticipation was matched only by the disappointment.
As the debates wore on, both contenders merely became thinly veiled jingoistic versions of each other as they proclaimed the US’ pre-eminence in the world, and its “role” in righting what it (selectively and opportunistically) saw as wrong beyond its borders. Both unashamedly glorified the role of the military, rather than acknowledge the sovereignty of foreign nations. ‘Foreign Policy’ proved yet again to be a trope for military hegemony rather than diplomatic relations.
“Our purpose is to make sure the world is peaceful … And the mantle of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America”, proclaimed Romney in what was perhaps one of the most ironic and self-aggrandising statements of the evening. Obama appeared more sensible, drawing attention to the essential need to “refocus on alliances and relationships that have been neglected for a decade”, and acknowledging that the entry into Iraq was a mistake as “there were no weapons of mass destruction”. Yet this seemingly measured approach was swiftly undone when specific cases were brought into view.
As both nominees composed saccharine sonnets to woo Israel, neither gave a passing thought to the indigenous population of that beleaguered region: the Palestinians that suffer the most from the disproportionate divisions of power in a land from which they were forcibly removed – and from a US foreign policy that unashamedly favours the Israelis. Romney declared, “If Israel is attacked, we have their back — not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.” In almost identical vein, Obama stated, “Israel is a true friend, it is our greatest ally in the region and if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel.” Similarly, as nuclear armaments were discussed, Iran was roundly condemned by both sides and called on to observe UN conventions, while an echoing silence was felt on the subject of Israel’s nuclear capabilities and the countless UN conventions that nation has laid waste to. Furthermore, both sides were more than comfortable with the thought of imposing sanctions on Iran, while entirely disregarding the fact of the dire consequences upon the civilian population such a measure would inevitably wreak.
As drone wars were discussed, again both contenders were animated on their importance, but little attention was given to the human cost. In what was perhaps Obama’s must cutting remark, in response to critiques over Democratic plans to reduce military spending, the President informed his rival; “Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets. Because the nature of the military has changed…The question is not a game of battleship or counting ships, it’s what are our capabilities.” While this comment may have amused allies and provoked opponents, it is the underlying message that should perhaps draw attention. The “change” and “capabilities” of which Obama spoke is that of drones: their use as a cost-effective means of inflicting maximum casualties on designated targets. While Romney’s intention to increase military funding may appear Bush-esque in championing a foreign policy that is more military than diplomatic, and also illogical in one so repetitively calling to “balance the budget”, one should not be deluded by Obama’s intentions. The military approach will continue, in the devious guise of detached proxy warfare where innocent lives are lost, communities are terrorised, and individuals are only further embittered and militarised against the US.
It seems that for all the competition and aggressive debating witnessed between Obama and Romney, the two had very little to clash on. Ultimately, the debate proved that regardless of who gains the presidential seat, foreign policy looks to remains an unchanged space in the US government. It is particularly telling that as these discussions were underway, very little scrutiny was afforded by moderator Bob Schieffer, who proved at best muted and at worst complicit in the flawed foreign policy both leaders espoused, failing to raise a single one of the countless ethical question this debate called for.
Schieffer may have been right in concluding: “Go vote! It makes you feel big and strong.” However, as a non-citizen living in the States, I am glad to not be burdened with the responsibility of voting in an election largely between the political equivalents of (heavily armed) Tweedledum and Tweedledee. For all the unlikelihood of their election, third party contenders are increasingly proving the better choice for an ethical vote.
Additionally, as a Briton, the fact that the entirety of the debate failed to make even a single meaningful mention of the US’ premier ally in botched foreign policies – apart from a passing comparison between Pakistan and Britain’s nuclear arsenals, no less – spoke volumes of our “special relationship”: in US foreign policy, there is none.
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