The Third Presidential Debate and the Changing World of Islam

by Ehsan Ahrari on October 23, 2012, 1 Comment

Presidential debates are a chore for a sitting president. He has to share the podium with an opponent who has little-to-no experience in foreign policy. That places the incumbent president incessantly on the defensive. For President Barack Obama, that specific aspect of the challenge was particularly onerous, because of his poor performance in the first presidential debate. Thus, he was under enormous pressure to be aggressive in criticizing the ever-changing policy positions of his Republican opponent, former Governor Mitt Romney. At the same time, Obama had to be careful not to sound angry or petty. Romney’s challenge was of a significantly different nature. Since he performed admirably during the first debate, he was expected to continue the same performance in the following debate. However, he knew full well that Obama was not going to be docile during the second round. In the second debate, Obama managed to get under Romney’s skin quite often in his attempt to underscore policy differences between the two. Consequently, Romney clearly looked like he was losing his cool. Obama evidently won the second round. However, the controversy related to the first two debates continued to create a momentum of their own as the third and final presidential debate approached.

In the third debate, Obama had to remain on the offensive because of a number of crises faced by the United States abroad. The Arab Awakening has badly shaken both the United States and Israel. The ouster of Mubarak from the presidency of Egypt was a major jolt to America’s heavy reliance on a policy in the Arab world of having its cake and eating it too. In that posture, the United States unabashedly supported Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine while maintaining the façade of appearing to be friends with friendly Arab dictators. Those dictators, knowing full well that they needed the lone superpower’s support to remain in power, had no problem making the minimal amount of protests about the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

In 2012, the United States faces another “brave new world” in the Middle East. The foremost reality in that region is that America’s prestige has been shattered and it will be well nigh impossible to restore to the level of the Cold War years. Consequently, Governor Romney’s neocon advisors were unjustly comparing the Obama presidency with the “failed” Carter presidency. However, there was a major difference. Jimmy Carter, by inviting the ousted Reza Pahlavi of Iran into the United States in 1979 triggered the hostage crisis, which ultimately cost him his second term. Obama, on the contrary, did not create the Arab Awakening, which emerged as a major social movement of this new century. Obama’s responses to the political protests involving regime change in Egypt, Yemen, and Libya were highly nuanced. As a result, it could be argued that Obama succeeded in keeping damage to the US interests to a minimum.

However, the nasty environment of presidential election campaigns–as was the case with Jimmy Carter’s own involvement in the Iranian crisis as he was facing the presidential campaign of 1980–tend to couch highly complicated issues of American foreign policy in simplistic explanations. Such explanations are especially hard for an incumbent president, because he looks as if he is justifying failure to the American voters, who mostly only pay scant attention to foreign policy.

Related to the Arab Awakening were two additional crises involving Libya and Syria. In Libya, the United States followed a policy of “leading from behind,” but still succeeded in ousting Muammar Qaddafi. The UK and France played a leading role in managing the NATO-sponsored air attacks on the forces of the Libyan dictator, while the American air assets were heavily used to carry out that objective. However, the political turbulence that erupted in Libya and Egypt in September 2012, once again, caught American intelligence by surprise, a la the Arab Awakening that erupted in Tunisia in December 2011. The most damaging aspect of the political turbulence of September 2012 in Libya emerged in the murder of the US Ambassador to that country and three other Americans. The immediate criticism of the Obama administration was that it failed to provide ample protection to its diplomatic staff. Once again, that development provided a lot of fodder to Romney and other critics of Obama’s foreign policy. Obama not only had to rely on providing simplistic statements to “protect his rear-end,” but was also forced to persuade the skeptical American voters that they can still trust him in his role as Commander in Chief for the next four years.

Regarding the growing civil war in Syria, the United States also adopted a highly nuanced policy of persuading Russia and China to cooperate with it in placing harsh economic sanctions on the regime of Bishara Assad, which was relentless in its brutal suppression of civilian protest. Neither Russia nor China was willing to fully cooperate with Washington on that issue. They were quite angry regarding the American role in bringing about regime change in Libya through the use of NATO. While continuing its attempt to persuade Russia and China, the United States also decided to provide some military assistance to the anti-regime Syrian insurgents , while encouraging Saudi Arabia and Qatar to play a major role in that regard. The greatest American fear has been that the Saudi and Qatari-backed Syrian insurgents, in reality, are Islamists. A number of them were also regarded as supporters of al-Qaida, which has become quite visible in Iraq as well as in Syria.

Consequently, Romney did not find very much to criticize Obama about during the last presidential debate. Much to Obama’s relief, Romney was more concerned about underscoring at times a commonality of interests between him and Obama when it came to “us versus the world.” He endorsed Obama’s killing of Usama Bin Laden, and his decision to get out of Afghanistan in 2014. Quite deftly, Obama accepted that approach by Mitt Romney, but relentlessly reminded American voters how reckless his Republican opponent had been in criticizing Obama’s overall foreign policy, especially toward the world of Islam, but decided to endorse it only during the third presidential debate.

In the final analysis, the most significant question related to these debates–especially the third one–is whether Obama made his case as a credible Commander-in-Chief for the next four years. If he fails in that endeavor, the brave new world of the Middle East and the changing Muslim world at large are going to be quite harsh on Romney’s presidency as he learns the difficult job of restoring America’s prestige in those regions.

Excellent piece, Ehsan!