What we witnessed last night was not a debate on foreign policy. It was not a nuanced discussion of America’s place in the world and the role we play in a post-Soviet international community. There was no real talk of diplomacy or statesmanship. Neither candidate took time to reflect on the harsh reality that the longest war in our nation’s history has brought before us in Afghanistan. No one so much as mentioned the Euro Zone crisis or it’s potential to send our nation into a depression that makes the one we just had look like the Luncheon of the Boating Party. There were no questions related to the fact that our planet is microwaving itself from the inside out like a hot pocket. No, what we got was a rousing presidential round of anything you can do, I can do bigger, with each candidate all but sacrificing a live goat at the altar of the military-industrial complex to appease its bloodlust.
Just the once, I want to hear a legitimate presidential candidate say the words, “I plan to reduce military spending.” He doesn’t even have to do it when he gets elected. I just want to know that the leader of my country realizes how absurd it is to spend twice as much federal money on defense than on welfare for the poor and the marginalized1. It would be nice if, in between the self-congratulatory ass pats about how many Al-Qaeda leaders we’ve killed, we stopped to recognize that we’re ranked 14th in the world in education2 and that we spend more money on just research and development for our armed forces than the entire GDP of Ecuador3. It is truly hard to state just how bloated our military spending is without sounding like you’re just making things up. When the president mentioned last night that that we spend more on our military than the next 10 nations combined, he was actually being modest. In reality, the United States allocates more money to its armed forces than the next 13 highest spending nations combined.
Given all these things, it was only natural that one of the main threads of the debate dealt with why our military had gotten so small. Because, clearly, $711 billion in annual defense spending is sending the world the message that we’ve decided to scale things back a bit. At least, that was what Mitt Romney was arguing last night when he chided President Obama for portraying weakness to the international community by having a smaller number of ships in our navy than we did in 1917. This proved to be a mistake as it opened up the GOP challenger for the biggest zinger of the night when the President glibly informed him that military technology has evolved in the past century and we no longer had the same number of horses or bayonets as we did in 1917 either.
It was a fantastic line to be sure, but what seems to have been missed is that it signified nothing. The two candidates weren’t having a debate about the size of the military—they were having a debate about each others’ perception of that size. At no point in their tete-a-tete did either candidate suggest that we need to reevaluate the role our military plays in a 21st century nuclear world and that it might be advantageous for us to tone down the chest-thumping, dick-swinging foreign policies of the past decade. The way each of the candidates talked about the conflicts in Syria and Iran, you would be forgiven for thinking they were feeling lax in their duties as Commander in Chief by only embroiling us in one war at a time.
In truth, there was little to no differentiation between the candidates positions at all last night. I don’t know if piggy backing on most of the President’s policies was part of Romney’s plan to play it safe and avoid any gaffes before election day or if it was a legitimate byproduct of his skin deep knowledge of foreign affairs, but it certainly made for riveting television. Bob Schieffer managed to clear the Lehrer Line of competence, but he didn’t go much farther than that. The old bluehair didn’t press either candidate on their stances on drone strikes, barely touched on the withdrawal in Afghanistan, and neglected to discuss Gitmo or the litany of civil liberties violations supported by both parties. Hell, the man didn’t even make the candidates acknowledge the existence of two entire continents. I know he gets bonus points for staying up so far past his bedtime, but it was hardly a vote of confidence in the 4th estate to watch Schieffer lay down like a tired old bloodhound in front of the candidates last night. Someone should have had Martha Raddatz on speed dial.
In the end it is just theater. The news media evaluates body posture and semantics ad nauseum while neglecting to ask questions of substance. Post-debate analysis is all about who won and who lost and not about who made a valid and substantive argument. We are subjected to hundreds upon hundreds of instant reaction polls and live read-outs of what real honest-to-goodness undecided voters are feeling as the debate happens as if its supposed to mean something besides an increased graphics budget for the cable news networks. Last night’s debate had little bearing on reality and, if past contests are any guide, will have little bearing on the final election results. In the end, I just keep going back to the words of our supposedly liberal president when he said, “America remains the one indispensable nation.” You can’t help but wonder if both men realize that all of the other dispensable nations are actually listening.
3In 2012, the US spent appx. $75.7 billion on R&D for it’s armed forces, while the Gross Domestic Product of Ecuador according to the World Bank was $67 billion (2011 figures).
Categories: US Politics