About an hour into the final televised encounter of the presidential campaign on Monday night, Slate’s Matthew Yglesias posted a hastily-produced map of The World According to the 2012 Foreign Policy Debate. It showed most of the globe blacked out, as if redacted, leaving only a sliver consisting of Iran, Israel, and Iraq, as well as Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya—and Mali. That last one was a surprise, a nod to Mitt Romney’s unexpected reference to the country in his opening statement, when he pre-emptively sought to puncture Barack Obama’s inevitable boast that he had weakened the terrorist enemy. Not in Mali, the Republican nominee said.
But that was an atypically exotic lapse. Most of the time, the world outside America consisted of three Is and (toward the end) a single C: the threat of a nuclear Iran, the need to stand with Israel, the wisdom of going into Iraq nearly a decade ago and of maintaining a troop presence there now, and finally the menace of job-stealing, currency-manipulating China. Europe surfaced just once, and then only in a list of regions where the US had strong alliances, alongside Africa and Asia. India, home to a billion people and a rising power, was mentioned not at all.
For the international audience, including admirers of America who would have nodded at Obama’s description of the US as “the indispensable nation,” watching the debate was a sobering experience—and not only for those playing the traditional “debate bingo” drinking game, waiting vainly for a shout-out to their country. Those ninety minutes told them starkly who mattered, and who did not. Political obsessives and night owls who watched the debate, as I did, in the small hours in London, for example, were divested of any delusions they might have still been nurturing about the so-called special relationship between Britain and the US. The UK was name-checked once by each candidate, but on both occasions only to illustrate a point about somewhere else: for Obama, that the US spent more on defense than the next ten countries, including Britain, combined; for Romney, that Islamabad would soon have more nuclear warheads than London.
It was the Middle East and its environs that mattered. Iran (mentioned forty-seven times)—or the “Iranian mullahs” as Romney put it—featured again and again, often in conjunction with Israel. Perhaps that is only to be expected, since that is one of the few foreign policy issues where actual votes might be at stake, whether those of Jews in Florida—where the debate was held—or of evangelical Christians, for whom hawkish support for Israel has become an article of faith. Viewers in the Arab world, primed on editorials and cartoons that depict—often in the visual language of medieval anti-Semitism—an America bending the knee to Israel or to purported Jewish power, will have had their worst prejudices confirmed.
The two candidates competed to be Israel’s best friend. While Romney referred to “my relationship with the prime minister” and upbraided Obama for failing to visit the country during his first Middle East tour as president, Obama recalled an earlier trip that took in the southern, rocket-hit town of Sderot and the Holocaust memorial institute Yad Vashem. One does not need to resort to myths of Jewish might to understand this display. The simpler explanation is that in the Obama era the Republicans, and Romney especially, have taken an issue that used to be broadly consensual and sought to exploit it for partisan advantage. Hence Romney’s claim in his convention speech that Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.” That has left Obama on the defensive, forced to spell out his record of staunch support for and military co-operation with Israel, which he did again on Monday night. If Romney believed there were votes to be had in casting Obama as soft on Cuba, they’d have sparred on that too.
Within the debate’s limitations and narrow scope—with moderator Bob Schieffer’s approach varying between light-touch and barely-there—what impression did the two men convey? For those abroad who still see Obama the way the Nobel committee did when it awarded its Peace Prize in 2009, the debate would have come as a sharp reality check. The president was firm, his gaze steady when he declared, “[A]s long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon,” the implied meaning hanging heavy in the air. Coupled with the references to the killing of Bin Laden and the persistent use of drone strikes, that should have served as a reminder that, whatever fantasies Europeans and others might have once had about Obama, he is a fairly traditional American leader. When challenged over cuts to the navy, leaving the US with fewer warships than at any time since 1917, the president did not make a peacenik’s case for a smaller military, but rather responded that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets—because the nature of our military’s changed.” That produced much laughter—and an instant Internet meme.
Romney sought to nudge in the other direction, to prove that he is less hawkish than you think. He spoke of “peace” often, a word that did not pass the president’s lips, and said we “can’t kill our way out of this mess.” It was Romney, not Obama, who mentioned the Palestinians, deploring the lack of progress on Middle East peace. He promised the troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014. He did not pledge to go to war with Syria, and his talk on Iran was not much tougher than Obama’s (though he said he would not tolerate a “nuclear-capable” Iran, setting the bar lower than the president, who refuses to countenance an Iranian nuclear weapon). Those positions made sense for a candidate whose primary objective in the debate was to prove that he was not a neocon maniac who would plunge America back into the Bush years, but a level-headed man whom voters could trust in the White House.
And yet the larger picture that emerged was of a country looking inward rather than outward. It was telling that both men, but especially Romney, frequently sought to shift away from foreign policy altogether and talk about the economy instead. At one point the two candidates had an animated conversation about small business in Massachusetts. “This debate will go down in history as one of the moments where it is tacitly confessed that the US is a lesser power,” tweeted Carne Ross, a former British official at the UN and founder of Independent Diplomat. He was struck by what he regarded as the candidates’s shared lack of ambition: gone was the talk of spreading democracy around the globe, replaced by “retrenchment, defensiveness and caution.” That view, coupled with Yglesias’s map, suggested that—no matter who wins in November—this is an America whose world is slowly shrinking.