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.