In the US presidential final debate, both candidates came off as strong and competent. The president was generally thoughtful and forceful when he needed to be, while governor Romney displayed a deep knowledge and authority on foreign affairs that compensated for the fact that he has never been faced with such decision-making in his public career.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a draw. Any undecided voter could come away supporting the candidate they were already leaning towards. So, for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, this debate can be seen as a win. For the American people, unfortunately, it cannot.
At a time when 61 per cent of Americans think the U.S. government uses military force overseas too often, it is disheartening to hear the president gloat about involving the U.S. in the Libyan civil war, and breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty to kill Osama bin Laden. When 56 per cent of Americans oppose a protracted land war with Iran, it is unfortunate that the biggest point of contention in the debate was Romney accusing Obama of being too soft on the Islamic Republic, while the president assured him that he was not taking any options off the table with regards to stopping Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon.
There was an odd reversal of roles in Monday night’s debate. Romney — who had been a strong proponent not only of American interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but of military confrontation with Iran — tried to stress his dovish bona fides. The president, who was originally elected in 2008 on a platform of ending the war in Iraq and being less aggressive in America’s use of military power overseas, touted the long list of foreign conflicts he had overseen.
Despite this reversal, however, both men treaded back into the traditional land of their base when they argued over military spending. Governor Romney attacked the president for cutting military spending, claiming that a nearly $500-billion reduction would significantly hamper the ability of the U.S. to defend itself. What Romney did not point out was that the supposed reduction was the accumulation of cuts to proposed increases in spending over the next ten years — not an actual reduction in current military spending.
In response to this, Obama explained that military spending had increased every year he had been president. He did not, however, explain that, even with the proposed cuts, military spending would continue to increase every year of his next term. Neither candidate proposed actual cuts to real military spending, nor did they propose scaling back the scope of America’s military presence globally, which would be necessary to achieve such reductions.
When Romney — who took every opportunity he had in the debate to reference his plan to get the economy back on track — was asked how he expected to cut the deficit without reducing military spending, he was unable to provide a complete answer. Stating only that he would implement a five per cent cut to everything but the military and that this would balance the budget in a decade — or, in other words, once he was out of office.
It is interesting to note that Romney, who in each debate has portrayed himself as ever-more the moderate, is at odds with two of the most conservative members of his party on this issue of military spending. Senators Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) and Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) — both medical doctors and Tea Party darlings — have been pushing very publically for an audit of the Pentagon and a significant reduction in military spending. Both base their arguments on conservative beliefs about the inefficiency of the public sector. If bureaucrats are prone to wasting taxpayer dollars, how is it possible that the largest federal bureaucracy with the clearest links to corporate lobbyists somehow magically spends every tax dollar allocated to it with maximum efficiency?
Unfortunately for senators Paul and Coburn, and any likeminded Americans, neither presidential candidate is proposing real or significant cuts to military spending. Both are strong supporters of the status quo and are hawkish on America’s role in the world.
As president, Obama has ramped up existing military interventions while expanding U.S. drone strikes into more countries than Bush had. In last night’s debate he showed no signs of reversing this policy. Romney, similarly, claimed to have supported almost all of the president’s military decisions, while he looked to Russia, Iran, and China as geopolitical boogeymen to confront on the world stage.
On Monday night Romney said the American people always vote for peace. After listening to the arguments and hearing the positions of each candidate on Monday night, if the governor is correct in his assessment, we can expect only one thing: the American people will vote for no one this November.