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Foreign policy isn't just about getting 'the bad guys'

Forget "jobs, jobs, jobs." On Monday night, this election quickly became about "Libya, Iran, Israel."
Pakistan US Allies Or Enemies
Pakistan US Allies Or Enemies

Forget "jobs, jobs, jobs." On Monday night, this election quickly became about "Libya, Iran, Israel."

In fact, this election wasn’t suppose to be about anything else than the economy. And it seemed that was the way the Romney-Ryan presidential ticket liked it. When you are running against the president who brought down Osama bin Laden, it seemed natural.

Especially after a season of foreign policy gaffes from Governor Romney – between insulting America’s most steadfast Western ally on the eve of the London Olympics or stating as fact that Russia was our most detrimental geopolitical foe – it didn’t seem that Romney was looking for a foreign policy fight.

But along the way to Monday night’s foreign policy-centric debate, international affairs has butted its way into the election. The tragic attack in Benghazi and its political fallout was the weak October Surprise that allowed foreign policy to gain a footing in this election. But it is also true that very simply elections open us up to an ongoing national dialogue about almost every facet of our democracy. And as Foreign Policy magazine’s David Rothkopf notes: “Forget what the polls say: Foreign policy has been centrally important to almost every election of the past 40 years in the United States.”

Let’s also not forget that the job of the commander-in-chief is by in large taken up by statesmanship. This debate should have been the most important one in helping the American people decide who should represent them to the world.  Foreign policy and national security is the place that the man (or eventually let's hope the woman) we vote for truly has singular influence.

And yet, I think I can safely say this debate didn’t help many people make up their minds. One reason is because Governor Romney (both physically and rhetorically) sat so close to the president on most issues that it was hard to know what he actually is proposing. It also won’t matter that much because this nation’s foreign policy has been dictated by neo-colonial mandates, the steam rolling force of our military industrial complex and the catch-22 nature of our post- WW2 post-protectionist posture in the world.

It is also the case that the best laid plans most often go astray when it comes to foreign affairs. We can only vote for the person we think has the best judgment (and not to mention best foreign policy advisors) because we don’t know what will hit their desk next.

But here is where the debate took its most interesting turn:

“Our purpose is to make sure the world is more — is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war. That’s our purpose. And the mantle of — of leadership for promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it, but it’s an honor that we have it. But for us to be able to promote those principles of peace requires us to be strong, and that begins with a strong economy here at home, and unfortunately, the economy is not stronger.”

Apparently, Mr. Romney came in peace Monday night in Boca Raton. In fact, the Republican presidential candidate used the word "peace" 12 times during the debate. It was fantastic to hear a candidate endorse the utility of “soft power” which would focus our policy on international women’s rights, diplomacy and avoiding new wars at all costs.

I was unabashedly excited to hear a politician focus on peace and I wish in this instance we could focus on the words and not the context. But all the words that were uttered around and about how to create that “peace” redefined the notion of peace altogether. Romney’s use of peace was a stand in for American exceptionalism.  He suggested that we could dictate peace in the world through our military strength.

One of Romney’s most practiced lines of the night was when he stated: "Mr. President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators." It seemed that Governor Romney tried to have his cake and eat it too last night, saying things like “we can't kill our way out of this mess” in the same breath as chastising the president for projecting "weakness" on a host of issues.

How could we ever give peace a chance when Romney’s plan is boiled down to this: "My strategy’s pretty straightforward, which is to go after the bad guys, to make sure we do our very best to interrupt them, to — to kill them, to take them out of the picture." The idea that the world can be seen through the lens of "bad guys" vs. "good guys" is a holistic misunderstanding of the shades of grey that color international diplomacy.

It also suggests that violence will always and should always beget more violence. There may be no room for peace within this rhetoric.