Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Neoncons and the foreign-policy presidential debate: The ism that dare not speak its name

By Lawrence Rosenthal

In Monday’s final presidential debate, President Barack Obama came full circle and more from his conflict-averse showing in the first debate. Obama not only attacked his opponent, but, in the absence of much challenge from Mitt Romney, took it upon himself to raise the very points required to mount his attacks.

For the most part, when the debate was not sidelined back to the domestic economy, Romney tended to endorse Obama's specific policies, while offering weak and generic bromides about being strong and increasing defense spending. On critical matters, like Afghanistan, Romney's earlier campaign-trail objections seemed to turn ethereal. As Obama observed in a discussion of sanctions on Iran:

 I’m glad that Governor Romney agrees with the steps that we’re taking. There have been times, Governor, frankly, during the course of this campaign, where it sounded like you thought that you’d do the same things we did, but you’d say them louder and somehow that would make a difference.

On point after point, Obama brought up earlier statements and positions that Romney has enunciated during his long run to the nomination and since. And a notable list of topics it was: Russia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, Libya, Syria. It was as though Obama himself needed to conjure up the foreign policy adversary he was debating with — the Romney from the campaign trail, not the Romney sitting beside him.

But there was good reason for Romney's failure to offer his counter foreign-policy positions, much less a competing foreign-policy vision. He has taken on a foreign policy team that, above all, needs to be kept out of sight as much as possible from the American public. He has resurrected the neoconservatives, and they are spoiling for an attack on Iran.

Fully 17 of Romney’s 24 special advisers on foreign policy served in the Bush administration. His key advisers on the Middle East are all neocons…Romney’s advisers — most of whom supported the Iraq war — have already concluded that war with Iran is essential.

The names pass by in baleful parade: Kagan, Senor, Bolton, Chertoff, Cofer Black, Carlucci. As the authors of the Bush administration's disastrous Iraq invasion, it would be hard to think of a more profoundly discredited foreign-policy vision than neoconservatism — or one more anathema to a public drained and disappointed by a decade of war.

In fact, the neoconservatives have always been aware that their ideas unvarnished would seem baffling and Strangelove-like to most Americans. The invasion of Iraq was the linchpin of a strategy cooked up years before and awaiting a pretext like 9-11 to turn into policy. Even then, it was sold to the American public and the world (remember Colin Powell at the UN) not on the neocons' strategic vision of an interventionist American hyperpower, but on the fictive threat of weapons of mass destruction, playing on post-9-11 fears.

Today, as in 2003, neoconservatives understand that Americans are loath to support their militaristic vision of the world. To a wide audience both here and abroad, the neocons resemble spiteful school children playing Risk. It was never clear to what extent they sold George W. Bush a bill of goods, playing on that president’s ignorance of the world and personal issues both oedipal and napoleonic. Romney’s own lack of worldliness became clear in his July gaffe-filled international tour. His ignorance came through in his Palinesque observation in the debate that “Syria is Iran’s…route to the sea.”

Hence the baffling bifurcated Romney Obama faced in debate—the Romney present and the Romney absent. The latter was the Romney of the stump who Obama was obliged to summon from the campaign deeps. Of the former, the President observed, speaking of Syria:

What you just heard Governor Romney say is he doesn’t have different ideas, and that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate, Syrian leadership and a — an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown. That’s the kind of leadership we’ll continue to show.

The neoconservatives are employing a Trojan horse strategy to return to the helm of foreign-policy decision-making in this country. More than anything else, they needed to get through the foreign policy debate without showing their hand. It looks like they succeeded.