Foreign Policy Threeway: Kaplan, Ackerman, and Bowden on the Final Presidential Debate

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Photo: Michael Reynolds-Pool/Images

We are proud to bring you the first, and perhaps last, Tripartite Instant Politics chat. Discussing last night's foreign policy debates are: Fred Kaplan,"War Stories" columnist for Slate and the author of The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, due out in January; Spencer Ackerman, senior reporter for Wired's Danger Room blog; and Mark Bowden, who writes for the Atlantic and Vanity Fair, and is author of the newly released The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden.

Let's get started!

Fred: Good to be here. Spencer, we know each other a little bit; Mark, not at all. Let me throw out two propositions about last night's debate. First, it showed (once again) that it's impossible for pols to have a serious discussion about foreign policy. Second, it showed (again, once again) that Mitt Romney has no business being commander-in-chief.

We know what Obama thinks and wants to do. We have no idea what Romney's foreign policy will be at all. Last night he contradicted nearly everything he's ever said on the subject — certainly a lot of what his top advisers really believe. Do you really think he's keen to explore the cultural sensitivities of Muslim culture? Does he think the solution to Iran is to arrest Ahmadinejad for verbal threats of genocide?

Spencer: Thanks for including me in this chat, gentlemen. Romney still seems a lot more confident telling a story about what's gone wrong with the world under Obama than he does distinguishing his solutions from Obama's. How many times did Romney say he agreed with Obama? I counted five.

But I don't want to let Obama off the hook. He ducked question after question, from what happens if Afghanistan goes to hell in 2014 to the sensibility of the drone strikes. His description of how he's supporting Syrian moderates isn't tethered to reality. All of those non-answers would have been far more damaging if Romney had actually challenged Obama on them rather than embracing them.

Mark: Nice to meet you, too, Fred and Spencer. It seems to me that the first rule of American politics is that you cannot talk realistically about foreign policy in public. Take the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Romney criticized Obama for saying he wanted to put some distance between the U.S. and Israel (something he has not in fact done). If the U.S. is to be a credible broker in the Middle East, isn't that precisely what we would need to do? Couldn't we do such a thing without backing off our commitment to defend Israel? Even talking about these questions honestly is apparently too charged for American voters.

Neither candidate even made a stab at defining broadly America's role in the world in this century, how it is changing. The discussion was very narrow, and the candidates agreed with each other 95 percent of the time. To me, it suggested a lack of original thinking and vision, on both fronts.

Fred: Uh-oh, I agree with both of you on this. A bad sign? Spencer, you're right that Obama evaded a lot of questions, and could because Romney agreed with him, but maybe this reveals a consensus on a few issues: Afghanistan war, bad; drone strikes, good (no Americans get killed); Syria, too confusing to deal with. Israel, Israel, Israel; strong, strong, strong. And yes, a lot of other things just can't be discussed. Surely Obama knows that no deal with Iran can be struck that doesn't allow them to enrich uranium to some extent (15 percent, maybe?), but that's too hard a concept to throw out on the table, so he says they have to end their nuclear program.

Spencer: Fred, if Romney's task was to reassure voters that he won't start any new wars, he succeeded. Obama may have denied that New York Times story about negotiating with Iran after the election, but he made a case for it being prematurely accurate, all by reminding voters that he wants a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue ... which would have to involve diplomacy. Mark, I think that speaks to your point: If there's actually going to be a peaceful solution to Iran, that's going to entail American concessions. Yet neither candidate is going to tell the country that he's prepared to give even an inch to Iran, and Americans aren't the only ones who watch these debates.

Mark: I think that's right, Spencer. We're up against it with Iran, but who is going to talk about the military option in realistic terms? Could we destroy Iran's nuclear program without a massive use of force, including ground troops? What kind of force are we willing to employ? What are the likely consequences to Israel, to us, to our allies? Neither candidate is willing to go down that road. I LOVE the idea that America is going to somehow discourage the spread of Islamist extremism. We are the last country in the world that could do that.

Fred: I also love it that Romney wants to solve the Iran problem through diplomatic means — but also wants to make Iranian diplomats "pariahs." This leads to a question: Do either of you think Romney has the slightest business being commander-in-chief? It's not just his inexperience. Obama didn't have much experience four years ago, but at least he displayed curiosity, he sought knowledge. Romney is just reciting talking points, and if they shift 180 to help him win an election, well, so be it. I'm not even sure he knows the difference.

Spencer: Yeah, I think Romney has business being commander-in-chief, simply by the virtue that he stands a good chance of winning the election. Sure, a future GOP president isn't going to appoint him secretary of defense, but I've got a pet peeve about foreign-policy wonks neglecting the basic fact that whomever the voters elect decides the preparedness question. My question for you guys, to be charitable to Romney: Could we not see in him the return of a GOP internationalist tradition that came into eclipse under George W. Bush? Romney came across as abandoning his bellicosity — preferring to deal with the world through trade policy than bombing — and gave a rather grown-up answer on retaining the frustrating relationship with Pakistan. Maybe that Romney is the real Romney.

Mark: One can always hope, Spencer. I suspect Romney would make a competent, pragmatic commander-in-chief. We certainly know he is prepared to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances! What troubles me about him are his frequent echoes of American triumphalism. There was even a nod to Reagan's "Shining City on a Hill" speech. The truth is that America is more than ever just one nation among many in the world and that overplaying our hand, even rhetorically, is self-defeating. Such talk feels good at home but is perceived globally is arrogant, at best, and, at worst, imperialistic. It plays right into the hands of our critics and, worse, our enemies.

Fred: Spencer, you surprise me. I see no evidence that Romney is some reincarnation of Averell Harriman (or George H.W. Bush). His brand of capitalism has no international dimension. He has shown no interest in, or curiosity about, the rest of the world. If last night's moderate rhetoric is the "real Romney," that was his debut. He's been in public life for a long time. We've never seen it before. He also seems to know nothing about U.S. foreign policy. Do you think he really believes America has never dictated its will abroad? Does he know nothing about the history of Iran, Nicaragua, Chile, etc., etc.?

Spencer: Sure, there's pandering, and Romney can come across like a blank slate on the world stage. And a weakness in my speculation is that unlike, say, Eisenhower, Nixon, or Bush the Elder, Romney doesn't have a record of engaging with the world. But for every John Bolton in Romney's foreign-policy brain trust, there's a Bob Zoellick, the moderate, internationalist former World Bank president. A Romney administration is likely to feature the Zoellicks competing for influence with the Boltons, and Romney's given little evidence that he's dug in with either camp. No?

Mark: Precious little evidence exists for any foreign policy scenario in a Romney presidency, other than an eagerness to throw our weight around. The thing I like best about Obama's approach to the world is precisely the thing he has been criticized for: a willingness to throttle back our role as "world leader." If ever the times cried out for subtlety in international affairs, this is it. Romney may be many things, but he is not subtle. And yes, Fred, the U.S. propped up dictators all over the world, but admitting that would amount to a peculiar form of Republican suicide.

Fred: I'm with Mark on this one. Spencer, Bob Zoellick is the only moderate internationalist in Romney's camp. Bolton is a bit of an outlier on the other side of things, but everyone besides Zoellick — Eliot Cohen, Dan Senor, Eric Edelman, and the others — are neocons of long standing. Some of them are smart, but that makes it less likely that a single Zoellick will provide counterweight. Then again, I'll give you this: We have no idea how Romney will act, what he thinks, how he regards the use of force, his tolerance for risk — no idea, and, to me, that suggests either his hollowness or his duplicity.

Spencer: Is that really fair, Fred? John Lehman and Rich Williamson may be hawks, but they're not neocons. Cohen is a more complex figure than a neocon caricature, although the label probably applies to him as well, as is Eric Edelman. But I think you're on firmer ground to say that even after at least two major foreign-policy speeches and one foreign-policy debate, it's hard to pin Romney down on foreign policy. Which prompted me to make a Spotify playlist around Obama's "Horses and Bayonets" dis.