The Third Debate: Politics is the Enemy of Strategy

The third debate introduced US citizens, and an international audience to a geographic variant of a staple political attack.

And, you know, Governor Romney, I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaida, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.

“All over the map” is flip-flopping in geopolitical argot. Yet discussion here was firmly anchored in the Middle East, and characterized by an unusual level of agreement. If there was one striking feature of the third debate, it was how little genuinely strategic places, and collective security interests, were even mentioned. No discussion of the European Union and the Euro currency crisis. No mention of India or Brazil, the other two BRICs getting cited only within the context of threat and trade discourse. No mention of climate change, nuclear weapon proliferation (beyond a passing comment on Nunn-Lugar), Indonesia and global health issues.Instead the debate remained largely mired in the Middle East – though Obama, to his credit, made mention of his ‘pivot to the Pacific’ towards the conclusion -, with some time later on China and trade, and, in the silliest expression of the night, a possibly US ‘divorce’ from Pakistan. (In keeping with past practice, the campaigns choose a weak US journalists to moderate, and the resultant level of questioning was an embarrassment to the profession).

The level of agreement between Obama and Romney on Israel, Iran and Syria does not serve the US public well. Students of US foreign policy will recall chapter (lesson) 3 in Gordon M. Goldstein’s Lessons in Disaster: Politics is the Enemy of Strategy. The chapter concerns how US decision-making on Vietnam in 1964 was shaped by the interests of the Johnson presidential campaign of that year. Marketing a politically palatable position, Goldstein’s argues, was more important than developing a strategically sound one. Hard policy decision-making was postponed, deferred and delayed. The same can be said of current US policy on Israel and Iran (and possibly Syria). The US government has so intertwined itself with the current government of Israel that it has created the remarkable dangerous situation of letting Benjamin Netanyahu’s domestic political calculations inordinately determine US foreign policy in this region. Bipartisan consensus on Israel has created a dangerous myopia on how US national security interests are understood in the region, and beyond. So also on Iran. The current US policy position, a blanket refusal to accept Iran with a nuclear weapon, has important shades of grey (is this ‘nuclear capable’ or ‘nuclear armed,’ and what leader gets to define how the former in particular is determined). But, lets be clear, it commits the US to go to war against Iran should it decide to do what the United States, Israel and many other nuclear capable states have done before, namely develop nuclear weapons as a national security strategy. There is no Plan B here, no questioning of the premises of this incredibly dangerous policy. It needs to be stated clearly: preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb is not a vital national security interest of the United States (just as preventing a Russian, Chinese, Israeli, Pakastani, and North Korean bomb turned out to be something the US and others could live with because deterrence is a compelling factor in international affairs). But again there is group think on this question across the political spectrum, with some of Romney’s loose talk on this issue echoing Barry Goldwater’s position on Vietnam in 1964. In that election, the triumph of politics over strategic debate, and clear thinking, had tragic consequences. One cannot be confident that history won’t repeat itself after this election.

About Dr Gerard Toal

Irish born academic living in Washington DC researching geopolitical competition and territorial conflicts in post-Communist Europe. Author of CRITICAL GEOPOLITICS (1996), BOSNIA REMADE (w C Dahlman) and NEAR ABROAD: PUTIN, THE WEST AND THE CONTEST OVER UKRAINE AND THE CAUCASUS (Oxford University Press, 2017).
This entry was posted in Current affairs, Geography, Iran, Israel, Obama, Rhetoric, Romney, the bomb, World political map and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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