Notes on the US presidential debate

I just caught up with last night’s US presidential debate — arguably the one that would be the most interesting for this audience, especially as the first segment was devoted to the Middle East. The one thing that struck me most is how limited the debate was, how frequently the bromides came, how few exciting ideas either of the candidates had to offer in what has to be one of the most exciting times in recent Middle Eastern history.

The differences between the candidates was on the surface mostly slim, largely due to Mitt Romney’s “pivot to the center” ending up being a “I agree with Barack Obama but can implement his policies better” line. Of course, as Obama pointed out again and again rather effectively, Romney changes his take all the time. (Juan Cole has a list of Middle East-related flip-flops or Etch-a-Sketch moments here

I think Obama clearly did better in this debate on substance, in part because of some Romney unforced errors:

  • Iran does not need Syria for access to the sea
  • Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some kind of council that organized the Syrian opposition? This is probably the biggest indictment to date of the failure of the, erm, Syrian National Council.
  • Romney wants to arrest Mahmoud Ahmedinejad for genocide. He said in the debate: “I would make sure that Ahmadinejad would be indicted for genocide. His words amount to genocide.” And then his campaign spokesman doubles down and suggests the UN can arrest Ahmedinejad. For something he has not done.

According to Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, successfully indicting Ahmadinejad would be more than just a symbolic victory.

“I think it would remove probably one of the most anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, pro-genocide members of that regime in Tehran,” he told TPM after the debate. As to whether he would actually be arrested: “I’m hoping that he would be indicted and that action would unfold following that indictment. Absolutely.”

Others in the Romney camp seemed a little unsure of how the indictment would play out. John Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, told TPM after the debate that the hypothetical charges wouldn’t even be about Israel, but about the violent repression of his own people.

“No, no, I thought he meant in terms of what’s going on internally in Iran,” Sununu said. “I think that’s what the reference was to.”

So Ahmedinejad is guilty of pre-cog genocide in Israel and genocide against his own people. Wow.

Other aspects of the debate were grimly familiar, notably he unprompted, almost incongruous, pledges of loyalty and undying love to Israel from Obama. But there was little of substance new or frankly interesting. The debate on Syria was surreal on the Romney side, and cautious on the Obama side (although I thought he made a good case for a cautious approach and the difficulty of finding “good Syrians” to back. ) Most striking was that both candidates reject direct US military intervention and Romney rejects a no-fly zone enforced by US planes.

On Egypt, Obama’s intervention was telling of the malaise in US policy circles over Egypt, which is perhaps deeper than that of Libya (although the Libyan intervention’s monstrous lovechild, the disintegration of Mali, made a front-row appearance). Romney raised Egypt having a “Muslim Brotherhood president” as a problem in itself. Obama talked tough about the points on which Egypt policy is focused:

  1. The rights of women and religious minorities;
  2. Cooperation on counter-terrorism;
  3. The “red line” of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty;
  4. Economic development.

Aside from the last point he kept talking of Egypt in terms of US applying pressure to obtain the results it wants. It definitely frames Egypt as a “problem” more than anything else.

Romney's stupid pandering to the lobby

Romney outrages Palestinians by saying Jewish culture helps make Israel more successful  - NY Daily News:

"JERUSALEM - Mitt Romney told Jewish donors Monday that their culture is part of what has allowed them to be more economically successful than the nearby Palestinians, outraging Palestinian leaders who called his comments racist and out of touch.

``As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,'' the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted around a U-shaped table at the luxurious King David Hotel.

The reaction of Palestinian leaders to Romney's comments was swift and pointed.

``What is this man doing here?'' said Saeb Erekat, a top Palestinian official. ``Yesterday, he destroyed negotiations by saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and today he is saying Israeli culture is more advanced than Palestinian culture. Isn't this racism?''"

That's like wondering why blacks are poorer than whites in 1870 America. Or 1990 South Africa.

Why is an American presidential candidate making such obviously stupid comments? Because he's pandering to the Israel lobby, that's why. And that's why his opponent will not call him out on his offensive stupidity, either.

Update: Steve Walt expands on this.

Mitt Romney's oddly familiar foreign policy

Asa’ad AbuKhalil (aka Angry Arab) had a good piece on the fact that Walid Phares is advising Mitt Romney:

Phares’ first career began early in the Lebanese civil war of the 1975-1990 when he allied himself with the right-wing militias, armed and financed by Israel. In his official curriculum vitae, Phares describes himself as a writer and lawyer in Lebanon at this time but he was more and less than that. He assumed a political position in the hierarchy of the militias and founded a small Christian party in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

After General Michel Auon assumed the presidency of Lebanon in 1988, Phares joined the right-wing coalition known as the Lebanese Front, which consisted of various sectarian groupings and militia. The Front backed Gen. Auon in his struggles against the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad and the Muslims of Lebanon. Phares’s role was not small, according to Beirut newspaper accounts.. He served as vice chair of another front’s political leadership committee, headed by  a man named Etienne Saqr, whose Guardians of Cedar militia voiced the slogan “Kill a Palestinian and you shall enter Heaven.” (Saqr later moved to Israel, and then Cyprus.) The Front was also backed by Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, a bitter foe of the Syrians. It seems unlikely that Romney knew much about this chapter in Phares’ career when he tapped him as an advisor.

In all fairness, whatever the nutty Phares is doing for Romney, it seems like some pretty familiar people are also getting a word in. Mitt Romney gave his first foreign policy speech, on October 7 in North Carolina. It sounds eerily familiar to neo-conservative tropes. What’s the first item on his agenda, for example?

Today, I want you to join me in looking forward. Forward beyond that next Recognition Day, beyond Ring Weekend to four years from today, October 7th, 2015.

What kind of world will we be facing?

Will Iran be a fully activated nuclear weapons state, threatening its neighbors, dominating the world’s oil supply with a stranglehold on the Strait of Hormuz? In the hands of the ayatollahs, a nuclear Iran is nothing less than an existential threat to Israel. Iran’s suicidal fanatics could blackmail the world.

By 2015, will Israel be even more isolated by a hostile international community? Will those who seek Israel’s destruction feel emboldened by American ambivalence? Will Israel have been forced to fight yet another war to protect its citizens and its right to exist?

So first the telling sign of putting Israel as the number one issue, but soon you’ll recognize that the neo-cons are back with their old Project for the New American Century:

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