Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
On October 22, President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney met in the last presidential debate of 2012, this time focusing on foreign policy. In this second part of a two part compilation, read the reactions to the debate by Brookings Foreign Policy experts: Shadi Hamid analyzes statements both candidates made on U.S. Middle East policy; Kenneth Lieberthal examines three themes on China both Romney and Obama focused on during the debate; Ted Piccone explores why Latin America was left out of the debate; Bruce Riedel comments on Romney’s defense of Obama’s Afghanistan-Pakistan policy; Marvin Kalb reflects on lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis and how they apply to U.S. foreign policy today.
This debate, if nothing else, showed us that U.S. discourse on the Middle East bears little resemblance to how Arabs see their own region. I joked on twitter that if you had a split-screen of randomly selected Arabs watching, they’d probably be beyond confusion. To begin with, Romney’s foreign policy message crumbled under the weight of its own contradictions. In his October 8speech on the Middle East, he echoed the Bush “freedom agenda” in calling for a more pro-active approach to democracy promotion. But his first response on the Arab Spring suggested an exclusively security-oriented approach, with a region reduced to violence, terrorism, and “tumult.” He cited the free election of an Islamist president in Egypt as an example of the “dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had.”
Republicans and neoconservatives, to their credit, once prioritized democracy promotion. But the fact that Islamist parties tend win free elections has rendered “neoconservatism” incoherent. It is simply impossible to support democracy, on one hand, and oppose the rise of Islamists, on the other.
During Monday night’s foreign-policy debate, both candidates sounded the same three themes on China. First, there is no inherent conflict between the United States and China and there is the potential for a great partnership in the future (Republican nominee Mitt Romney was surprisingly expansive on this, though President Barack Obama did label China an “adversary” for the first time). Second, to realize this partnership, China must stop cheating on the rules in economics and trade — stealing intellectual property, counterfeiting goods, etc. And third, how effectively America handles its own domestic problems will have a major impact on the long-term U.S. relationship with China.
These have been Obama’s themes in one form or another throughout his first term and this campaign. On Romney’s side, they reflect his decision in this debate to project himself as a moderate – one who will not lead the United States into a new war, who recognizes the need to win over support abroad through aid and diplomacy, and who has the character and good judgment to be president. In short, Romney was prepared to allow very little daylight between himself and Obama in a bid to allay fears about where he would lead America abroad – and this was particularly evident in the discussion of China.
Not surprisingly, neither candidate had anything substantive or new to say in any of the debates about our closest neighbors. Why does Latin America and the Caribbean rank so low in the foreign-policy agenda of either party?
Latin America, of course, is made up of diverse countries developing at different speeds. In general, however, the 32 countries of the hemisphere are growing at an above-average rate, due largely to Asia’s growing demand for its natural resources. The United States has generally fared well in trade and investment terms, with exports doubling since 2000 under a web of free trade agreements promoted by both parties. Getting Congress to approve trade pacts with Colombia and Panama in 2011 was a major breakthrough.
From a trade and jobs point of view, President Barack Obama was right to push Congress to act. The United States already exports more to the region than to Europe, twice as much to Mexico as to China, and more to Chile and Colombia than to Russia. More exports means more good jobs in the United States. America’s energy security is also in play: A third of U.S. oil imports come from our neighbors and Canada is our No. 1 supplier, reducing our dependence on the Middle East. On the downside, America’s share of the region’s market has declined significantly in the last decade, with China and Europe stepping in with cheap goods and favorable terms. So Republican nominee Mitt Romney is to be applauded for touting the idea to promote trade even further (though he may exaggerate the upside).
Barack Obama’s much-maligned Afghanistan-Pakistan policy was eloquently and persuasively defended in the final debate by Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Whatever past reservations Romney had about the president’s position were dropped. If you don’t like Obama’s policy, sorry folks: You have no one to vote for in November.
Romney argued that the “surge” in American and allied troops over the last four years has been successful — it bought time to build up Afghan forces to roughly 350,000 strong today, and the transition to Afghan-led military operations should proceed on time in 2014. That is the essence of the president’s plan.
In Pakistan, Romney supported the use of drones against al Qaeda targets. Obama has used them some 300 times in four years. Romney also argued that Pakistan is too important not to engage with. It has more than 100 nuclear weapons, a fragile internal political balance, and is under threat from extremism. It will be a larger nuclear power than Britain in the near future. He did not advocate reducing aid, although he did suggest it be more conditional. In the last decade, America has disbursed more than $25 billion of aid to Pakistan, half on Obama’s watch. The president has tried to get more of it to the civilians in Pakistan to build a healthier state.
When moderator Bob Schieffer opened the foreign policy debate with reference to the Cuban missile crisis fifty years ago, I remembered that extraordinary week in Moscow, where I served as CBS’s Moscow Bureau Chief, when the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear war. Except in Moscow, unlike Washington, New York, or any other city in the United States, where students were being taught to hide under their desks, I did not think we were heading towards a nuclear catastrophe, and many others in Moscow shared my belief.
There were two reasons, at least.
First, whenever I visited the sprawling central market in downtown Moscow, which I did regularly, especially in that week of rising tension, I noticed that I could have purchased large quantities of flour and salt, the twin ingredients of a Russian diet, of Russian hospitality. Flour and salt were everywhere, on every stand and shelf. If Russia were on the edge of war, they would have been unavailable, instantly hoarded by savvy Russians, who knew from experience that during war, or a crisis that could lead to war, flour and salt quickly vanished, the first casualties of coming conflict. The year before, during the Berlin crisis of 1961, when Russians truly sniffed the smell of war, there was no flour, no salt, in the Moscow market. Both ingredients, purchased, stolen and hoarded before ever reaching the market. I’d visit the market and talk to the peasants. No flour, no salt, they’d say. Then, they truly felt the first tremors of a possible war. To the Russians, Berlin meant Germany, and Germany meant war. On the other hand, Cuba was far away, never imagined as a reason for a nuclear war with the United States, even though, interestingly, the Soviet press was jampacked with stories of American “maneuvers” and “threats” of “aggression” against Castro’s Cuba.
A second reason for a Moscow correspondent to believe that the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was searching for a way out of the Cuban crisis was his surprising presence at a Bolshoi concert on Wednesday evening featuring an American opera star, Jerome Hines. My wife and I happened to have tickets for the concert. We did not know (how could we?) that It was going to send a powerful and hopeful signal to the world. Shortly before the curtain rose, Khrushchev and other members of his Politburo suddenly appeared in the VIP box on the mezzanine level. Everyone applauded, Khrushchev applauded back; and when Hines finished signing, Khrushchev rose and applauded vigorously. He enjoyed the Hines performance; but more important he was saying in the odd and twisted language of the Cold War that he wanted good relations with the United States. So no one would miss his message, he then went backstage and personally congratulated Hines and expressed his hope for better relations with the American people. His security guards pointedly allowed me, an American reporter, to get close and listen to what Khrushchev had to say to Hines.
I felt then—and feel now—that Khrushchev embarked on what later came to be called his “hare-brained scheme” of introducing nuclear-tipped missiles into Cuba in order to provoke an international crisis that would be resolved at another Khrushchev-Kennedy summit, at which Khrushchev would agree to withdraw his missiles from Cuba and Kennedy would agree to withdraw the western presence from West Berlin. For Khrushchev, Berlin was always “a bone in my throat.” He tried with threats of escalating danger to force the west out of Berlin, located in the middle of East Germany, but he kept failing to achieve his goal. He then, in desperation, came up with the cockeyed and terribly dangerous plan, using Cuba as his trigger, to swing the balance of power from the US to the USSR—and hope Kennedy would cave. During their earlier Vienna summit in June, 1961, Khrushchev took the measure of Kennedy and thought he saw a spoiled, inexperienced leader, who could be taken to the cleaners. He miscalculated, and ultimately it was Khrushchev who caved.
Was there a Cuban missile lesson in the last Obama-Romney debate? Yes, indeed. It was, know your enemy. But do Obama and Romney know their enemy? Do they really know, for example, what makes the ruling Ayatollah of Iran tick? How would they even know they knew? If the debate proved anything, it was that both candidates appreciated that the next president will be facing a dangerous and swiftly changing world. Will he have the right answers?