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US election: Candidates walk loudly, forget the stick

  • Author: Jean MacKenzie
  • Updated: September 29, 2016
  • Published May 19, 2012

Mitt Romney will not negotiate with the Taliban — he will defeat them. Barack Obama is done talking to Iran — window for diplomacy is shrinking. No one apologizes for America. We stand tall astride the world by virtue of our exceptional status.

This is just a small sampling of the rhetoric surrounding US foreign policy by the two rivals for the 2012 presidency.

The sniping is more than annoying, it is downright dangerous. It is designed to make us feel stronger without offering any real solutions to the myriad problems facing the United States at home and abroad.

The incumbent is facing a number of challenges, of course: a war in Afghanistan that seems physically impossible to win and politically impossible to lose; a defiant Iran that refuses to buckle to American pressure on its nuclear program, against a US Congress that appears intent on pushing the president into war; a conflict in Syria that has shocked he world, while the international community stands impotently on the sidelines; and a rogue state, Yemen, that is sponsoring Al Qaeda bombers whose ingenious underwear devices are now the bane of travelers everywhere.

Weigh this against a roaring deficit, a shrinking military budget, and a public that is increasingly gun-shy about foreign adventures, and you get some idea of Obama's dilemma.

Romney, of course, faces no such constraints; he can blast away at his opponent, playing on the wounded national pride of Americans as he calls for firm action, regardless of the possibilities.

Many remember this bold statement during the Republican primary debate in South Carolina: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon."

Of course, by the time the truth or falsehood of this promise is proven it will be too late to do anything about it.

Romney has also raised eyebrows by calling Russia "our number one geopolitical foe," and has vowed to "reset the reset" with the Eurasian giant, at a time of delicate political maneuvering by the administration on missile defense.

When Obama was caught on an open mike promising "more flexibility" after the elections, Romney all but accused him of working for the other side.

His campaign has also caused many moderates in the country to break out in a cold sweat by floating rumors that John Bolton, the combative former ambassador to the UN, would be on Romney's short-list for Secretary of State. Among other things, Bolton called for the dissolution of the United Nations when those pesky allies of ours refused to acknowledge our status as the only real superpower left in the world.

Of course, the president's foreign policy record is far from perfect: take his Dec. 1, 2009 speech at West Point, where he announced the US troop surge in Afghanistan, immediately undercutting himself by promising to leave the war zone within 18 months. Toss a bone to the hawks, try and placate the doves, and ruin any chance for success, all in just 30 minutes.

The politicization of foreign policy is almost inevitable in an election year, and we should be neither surprised nor shocked by the chest thumping and finger pointing that the candidates will engage in.

But a dose of reality would be a welcome addition to the debate.

Romney can talk all he wants about defeating the Taliban, but anyone who knows even a little about the country and disastrous course of the war knows that this is just not possible. As the New York Times piece points out, even some of Romney's own advisors have advocated for a negotiated settlement.

As a veteran of seven years in Afghanistan, I can attest to the impossibility of a military victory — even a political end to the war seems a distant dream at this point. Most likely we will go the Vietnam route of "declaring victory and going home," leaving the unfortunate Afghans once again to cope with the aftermath of foreign intervention, regardless of who wins in November.

Iran is a bit trickier; with delicate negotiations set to occur in just a few days, Romney's vague threats might have some unintended consequences. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might be a bit more amenable to talking with the current administration now if he thinks he might be faced with a the hardliners next year.

Most Americans will not make their choice at the polls depending on foreign policy; the economy is still the driving issue.

But nationalism is a tricky panacea for domestic woes — just think back to Germany after World War I.

Romney's remarks in Manchester, NH, on April 24 — the speech that effectively kicked off the general campaign — was testimony to this strategy. Called "A better America begins tonight," it offered hope to angry and fearful voters.

"There was a time — not so long ago — when each of us could walk a little taller and stand a little straighter because we had a gift that no one else in the world shared. We were Americans… it meant something special to all of us. We knew it without question. And so did the world," he said, to thunderous applause.

Obama, meanwhile, calls for responsibility and sacrifice — a far less soaring message.

But rhetoric is not reality. And posturing is not action. We should try and remember that from now until November.

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