What did we learn from the third and final presidential debate on Monday? We learned what it takes to become president of the United States in 2012.
It takes assuring the American people—emphatically and repeatedly—they won’t be getting into any more wars. Americans have had it to here with wars.
It takes promising to get out of Afghanistan by 2014. It takes sticking to sanctions as the best weapon against Iran.
It takes proposing to fight terrorism with friendliness: boosting economic development in terrorist-producing nations with foreign aid; helping to remake them into “civil societies” by promoting the rule of law, better education and gender equality.
It takes saying that the solution is “to help the world of Islam … reject this radical, violent extremism,” and to do so “on its own.”
It takes promoting a sunshiny and very curious reading of the Middle East—one where America is doing everything essentially right. In Syria, Bashar Assad is sure to go eventually; we just need to keep doing what we’re doing. In Egypt, we were correct in ousting Hosni Mubarak; we’re better off with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge. In Libya, we did right in dethroning Qadhafi; Libya is progressing nicely. In Afghanistan, we’ve basically done our job; the locals can keep things under control now, so we can bring our boys back.
To become president, it takes saying that we’ve had enough adventures overseas and must get back to “nation-building here at home.” It takes getting the conversation off the rest of the world and focusing on how to make people’s lives better back here.
On all these points in the debate, the two presidential candidates were remarkably agreed. That’s because this is what it takes to win the presidency.
As George Will said of the two candidates after the debate, “They understand, both of them, that foreign policy is very peripheral to Americans’ interests today, and what foreign policy they want needs a lot less American involvement overseas.
“Tonight we saw two men who don’t really disagree all that much talking about subjects concerning which the voters don’t care all that much.”
Stunning. Particularly given the uncertain state of current events globally.
This is an astounding time for America to be losing interest in the world. Serious threats are growing, while America’s influence is shrinking—dramatically. The Middle East is being transformed, and in spite of enormously costly American efforts, it is descending deeper into radicalism. Europe is in turmoil, seized with unrest that, history shows, could be commandeered by extremists of a different stripe. Asia is being redrawn as China rises and actively undermines American interests. Latin America is also decoupling from the U.S. and playing host to more extremist and violent elements. Do Americans care?
In the debate, President Obama boasted, “We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined.” So what? The painfully obvious reality is that it gets us nowhere. The U.S. “no longer has the … basic ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet,” as Tom Engelhardt wrote recently on Real Clear World. “Quite the opposite, U.S. military power has been remarkably discredited globally by the most pitiful of forces.” Can Americans recognize this?
The time of American superpower is past; the world has lurched toward multipolarity. What does this mean? Authority and influence is bleeding out in several directions, toward powers unpredictable, unstable and troubling. Frankly, the proliferation of factors that could lead to devastating conflicts in this post-American world can numb the mind.
Are you seeing it? Analysts routinely note these probabilities with concern. Even popular culture is increasingly fixed on apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenarios and themes.
But listen to the president. To hear his view of things, everything is under control. In fact, America has never been stronger and safer. We just need to stay the course. Keep doing what we’re doing.
And most remarkably—as the debate made patently clear—his challenger has made the tactical decision to take the same approach. Yes, Governor Romney alluded to some of these problems, but what does he propose to do about them? His solutions are really no different than those of the man he wants to replace. He has to assure voters he won’t alter America’s foreign policy much—in spite of what he himself has called the unraveling of that policy before our eyes. It’s not working, but what other choice do we have?
For this, conservative commentators praised him for being “presidential,” for passing “the commander-in-chief test.”
This is what it takes to become president of the United States in 2012.
This is a nation eager to pass responsibility for Iraq onto Iraqis, for Afghanistan onto Afghanis, for Israel onto Israelis, and for every other problem area onto its “partners” in the international community. And it is about to elect a man determined to further fix the nation’s attention on itself. When Bob Schieffer asked each candidate to describe America’s role in the world, Governor Romney brought his answer around to the problem of college students being unable to find work, and President Obama talked about the need for clean energy and for wealthy people to pay more taxes. They both managed to swing this debate onto weighty foreign-policy matters like hiring more teachers, reducing class sizes, and improving math grades. They understand that the nation’s role in the world is very peripheral to Americans’ interests today.
Well, guess what? More and more, America’s role in the world is peripheral to the world’s interests as well. America’s “ability to impose its will anywhere on the planet” is long gone. Its presidential candidates talk about exerting leadership, but the world is moving on.
Do you think Bashar Assad, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hu Jintao and Vladimir Putin were worried about the threats issued against them in Monday’s debate? Are the terrorists who killed four Americans and torched a U.S. consulate on the anniversary of 9/11 concerned about U.S. retaliation? Is Iran thinking twice about proceeding with its nuclear program based on anything it heard? Are the Taliban, or the terrorists in Pakistan, disturbed about what might happen to them after November’s vote?
As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the results of this election don’t matter. They are confident that whomever America elects, he will oversee the continued contraction of the nation’s international influence and power. America is becoming irrelevant. The U.S. is disengaging from the world, and the world is returning the favor.
But the story doesn’t end there. This development is going to have massive consequences. America’s preoccupation with its present domestic issues will soon prove to be an unaffordable luxury. Probably within the next presidential term, that multipolar, post-American world is going to produce some nasty shocks. The problems that emerge will explode to proportions far too great to ignore. ▪