The Arizona State University foreign policy debate on Wednesday — with former Pentagon official Janine Davidson pitching for the Obama administration and long-time neoconservative Dov Zakheim swinging for Gov. Romney — offered a rare opportunity to get the measure of the two campaigns on pressing military and national security issues, which up to now have been relegated to the back seat.
Unfortunately, Davidson seemed determined to make President Obama sound like the candidate we thought we were getting back in 2008, while Zakheim insisted on building Romney up to be the Frankenstein President Bush we supposedly got rid of that year.
If Wednesday night was any indication, the foreign policy discussion in this race has devolved into a rehashing of the 2008 election — or even 2004 — as Zakheim blew the dust off the old GOP playbook and guilelessly tossed about meaningless victuals like: “you are likely to be more successful if you are strong, not if you are weak,” and, “there is talk and there is action … [the Democrats] are all talk and no action.”
“An America that is perceived as weak is one that will be despised. Right now we don’t look very strong.” Obama has lost all respect in the Middle East, he noted: “people who respect us don’t destroy our embassy and kill our ambassador,” a jab at last week’s attack in Libya.
And so on and so forth. Zakheim — when you Google his name the pantheon of Bush-era warhawks appear next to him like the Legion of Doom: Feith, Kagan, Perle, Cohen, Chertoff — blustered and bluffed through the 90-minute debate before a largely college audience, brushing off both reality and the history of last four years for the sake of the aggressive sound bite.
“You cannot keep the peace if you are not strong and when you look at our military today you see our strength dissipate before our eyes,” he said, referring to the threat of defense budget cuts. Zakheim had better get a new prescription for those glasses. Despite what the Cassandras over the budget want to say, the U.S continues to have the largest, best-equipped, most disciplined and capable military on earth, and of course the most-generously funded.
This is where Davidson, who assumed her former position as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Plans after the last election — an erstwhile COINdinista who enjoyed at least a few years in the Petraeus-ordained Washington in-crowd — was best equipped to call Mr. Zakheim out on playing fast and loose with facts that one could easily dispel with two taps on a smartphone. But for whatever reason Ms. Davidson did not, or could not, rise to the occasion.
Instead, she seemed bent on defining Obama not just in the broadest possible terms, but more importantly, as though he did not spend his term pursuing a foreign policy and national security posture more aggressive and yes, more militaristic than even his predecessor’s. The word “drone” was not mentioned even once (by any participant on the panel).
Davidson offered no response to Zakheim when he accused Democrats of “rah-rah-ing Afghanistan” and “politicizing” the killing of Osama bin Laden. She let him reduce the U.S-fortified regime change in Libya to “leading from behind.” She neglected to mention the dramatic expansion of U.S Special Forces under President Obama’s watch to more than 100 countries across the planet, not only expanding Bush’s Global War on Terror, but also doubling down on the idea of the U.S as the world’s police with a growing presence in Africa. Meanwhile, Obama has brought executive power to new heights of audacity, operating off a reported “kill list” that invariably includes American citizens, with no publicly offered, legal justification. The only “weakness” here seems to be in congressional and judicial oversight and the lack of public outrage.
But this was an event organized and sponsored not only by the university, but also the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the Democratic think tank that has thrived on having it both ways: pushing a muscular counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, while promoting itself as more responsible and humanitarian than its warmongering counterpart, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), another cosponsor of the event. Also on board was the New America Foundation, represented by Peter “there have been no civilian drone deaths” Bergen, who spent the night pitching softballs to both Zakheim and Davidson.
Davidson had the tough job of trying to distance Obama from her hawkish opponent while making the president appear forward-thinking and strong. So she pitched the Obama of 2008, extolling him as a man who knows his “sacred duty” as commander-in-chief, who takes seriously both the decision to put “men and women into harm’s way” and his efforts to pursue an “honorable withdrawal” from Afghanistan. She gave him credit for engaging in Pentagon restructuring and reform that no one is aware of. She cheered his ability to reposition “key alliances in the Middle East” while remaining “very much dedicated to supporting people in the Arab Spring who are trying to democratize,” and praised him for “reaching out” to Iran to stop their nuclear ambitions, while slapping them with biting sanctions that are crippling their domestic economy.
This smushy start led easily to Zakheim’s acerbic diatribes, which included an especially snide, “we’re really doing a great job in the Middle East.”
Davidson did hold her ground on Iran, accusing Zakheim of impatience over sanctions and pining for war with Iran “out of boredom.” The only time she really hit back, though, was when Zakheim went so far as to suggest the U.S made a mistake when it threw Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak “under the bus,” as though the American president had any say when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians filled the streets to end Mubarak’s brutal, autocratic rule. “You don’t see the Gulf States burning down our embassies — look at Morocco, a traditional monarchy, has not been burning down our embassy.”
“So you would prefer to support dictators across the globe?” she quipped.
“No, not all dictators,” he responded.
“Just the ones we like?” she came back like a shot.
“Yes, I would prefer dictators over the Mullahs,” Zakheim replied, before hurriedly emphasizing this was his personal opinion and not that of the Romney campaign. Glad we cleared that up.
But Zakheim was equally hyperbolic on a number of flashpoint issues. While Romney has said he would intervene military in Syria and even Iran if necessary, Zakheim’s cavalier presentation may not be how Romney wants his public posture defined — especially in light of his widely-panned response to the Middle East protests (which was immediately defended by his neoconservative foreign policy advisers).
Nevertheless, this “back to the future” moment underscored by Zakheim could signal a final gelling of the GOP message for the rest of the campaign. If Davidson’s performance is any indication, then the Democrats, as usual, don’t have what it takes to respond clearly or effectively. They can’t in part because they have spent the last four years purging the ranks of non-interventionists and pursuing policies virtually identical to President Bush’s. The best they can do now, at least for themselves, is to present themselves as the only “adults” in the room, just like in 2008.