Last night, US presidential candidates President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney took the stage in a town hall style debate in which self-described “undecided voters” posed questions about both domestic and foreign policy. The debate was predictably dominated by domestic concerns like the economy and job shortage, though the candidates did spar about the country’s relationship to China as well as the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attacks.
The upcoming – and final – debate on October 22 will ostensibly focus solely on foreign policy matters. It’s likely to be similarly narrow, with the candidates delineating slight differences between themselves on a small number of topics beyond China and Benghazi. Here are a few of the issues certain to come up:
1. Which candidate is the better “friend to Israel,” a matter generally reduced to a show of dramatic platitudes designed to show the American people who “loves Israel” the most. And which candidate has the harshest things to say about Hamas.
2. Which candidate is most likely to stop nuclear armament in Iran. This discussion too will focus on the tone of diplomatic efforts, as well as on each candidate’s inclination to use force in Iran (or not).
3. That thing we in the US no longer call the “War on Terror,” but which persists anyway. Obama will mention his administration’s role in the death of Osama bin Laden over and over, and Romney will use Benghazi as a jumping off point to cast Obama as “weak on terror.”
Each of these issues will be narrowly circumscribed. Obama tried to chart out a relatively unique course in his 2008 campaign, but has been unable or unwilling to follow through on some of his most important promises. Specifically, Guantanamo has not shuttered its doors, and it’s not entirely clear whether extraordinary rendition or “enhanced interrogation techniques” (i.e. torture) have come to an end. And though Obama promised more transparency than the Bush administration on international policy he issues, he has arguably shown less.
There’s more: Obama once promised to undo his predecessor’s expansion of the executive branch of government, but has curtailed none of the Bush administration’s overreach. In fact, he’s gone beyond what Bush set in motion, making it easier for the President to commence military operations in a country like Libya without the approval of Congress. Not only this, but in 2010, his administration claimed the right to authorize assassinations of US citizens abroad who are suspected of terrorist activity, even if they’re located away from any battlefield. Though the Bush administration had compiled so-called “hit lists” of American citizens, there is scant evidence that he ever followed through on ordering actual hits.
Given that Mitt Romney is setting himself up as the more hawkish candidate, he is of course unlikely to criticize any of these shortcomings. Like Obama, he is almost guaranteed not to promise any substantive limitations on the executive office. And like Obama, he is unlikely to address the issue of executive overreach at all. Nor should we expect him to critique the administration’s dishonorable drone program or the devastating effects it has had on ordinary civilians in US war zones. And both candidates will continue to ignore the abuses wrought by US-hired mercenary intelligence operatives and fighters around the world, pretending that the US has really and truly ended military operations in Iraq.
And oh, there will be platitudes. Both will promise that the United States does not practice torture. Both will try to stake out fairly meaningless claims about one being “tougher on terror” than the other. Obama will say he supports the “democratic aspirations” of people in Middle Eastern countries, and Romney will claim this is irresponsible. No one will bring up the fact that the US doesn’t support the “democratic aspirations” of the people in Bahrain, and has been overwhelmingly quiet about human atrocities committed against civilians there.
Romney will issue dogwhistles that hint – but never quite state – that Obama is not to be trusted on foreign policy issues because his father was a Muslim, and maybe Obama harbors secret Islamist sympathies. He’ll evade being held accountable for this by not quite saying it, much as he did last night when he noted, “My father was born in Mexico to American parents.”
The obvious subtext? “Obama’s father was not an American. Obama is a scary black ‘other.’ Therefore, Obama’s loyalty to the United States is precarious at best.” And on and on it will go.
And while the candidates are sure to ignore important context about foreign policy toward the Middle East and Northern Africa, there is at least one major policy issue that will not be discussed at all: That is, the US militarization of Central Africa, including military aid to Uganda. Though the amount of military aid does not yet rival the amount the US provides to countries like Israel and Egypt, it has nevertheless increased substantially in recent years.
The stated purpose of this escalation has been to help Uganda undermine some of the rebel forces that are currently wreaking havoc on the region, including a Lord’s Resistance Army that has been rooted out of Uganda only to become the problem of bordering states, radical Hutu genocidaires who fled Rwanda to avoid prosecution after the genocide and long-term civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These are all things that interested the American public for a few weeks as a result of the misleading “Kony 2012” campaign, but have not continued to be a part of US foreign policy discussions.
More likely, as the administration has all but admitted, the military aid has more to do with combating radical Islamist groups like Somalia’s al Shabaab than with human rights commitments. The other problems have been destabilizing Central Africa for many years now. The growing influence of al Shabaab – though somewhat overstated and sensationalized in US news media – is a relatively new phenomenon. And it’s of increasing concern to the United States.
The big news yesterday was of course a leaked UN report claiming that Rwanda and Uganda are both providing assistance to rebels in the DRC. Though this raises questions about just how much the two countries are themselves destabilizing the region, the US campaign season is unlikely to include any discussion about the US role in Central Africa whatsoever. No one will ask whether or not military aid in the region is exacerbating the conflicts. And if past policy decisions are any indication, it seems unlikely that any of it will register as a major US foreign policy concern anyway.
Critics have consistently noted that watching the candidates delineate slightly different – but mostly very similar – positions on domestic issues has been a frustrating feature of this campaign season. This is true in many cases: Both candidates are friends to big business. Both support corporate reform in public schools. Ideological convergence has become a feature of American political discourse. But nowhere will this be more apparent than in the dishonest foreign policy debate we’ll be watching on October 22.