x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Few differences in US debate on foreign policy

Despite all the campaign sound and fury, there's not much difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney on foreign policy issues.

The final US presidential debate had been billed as a key discussion on the future of US foreign policy. By yesterday morning, however, a more modest assessment prevailed.

Debates and campaigns have always been rhetorical exercises that have little to do with the realities of governing, and more to do with the maths of winning. In 2008, then-senator Barack Obama vowed to close the Guantanamo prison; of course, it's still open. And former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on a number of issues, from gun control to the US relationship with China.

Politicking is part of leadership, so putting too much stake in what candidates say before they actually gain office and set policy is a recipe for disappointment. But presidential debates do matter, especially for those watching from afar: they offer insight into how US politicians see the world, how they hope to interact with it, and how they wish to be seen outside the US. Instincts are important, and in recent Middle East history, US presidents' instincts have had devastating effects.

And yet, the US posture in the Middle East has been remarkably consistent in recent decades. US support of Israel, engagement with countries of the Arabian Peninsula and safeguarding oil shipping lanes, to name a few examples, are all policies that will not change regardless of who sits in the White House.

Mr Obama and Mr Romney used Monday's debate to try to convince voters how much they differ. In reality, they showed there is little daylight between the two contenders. Both men say they will stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon; both favour economic sanctions to force Tehran's hand. They agreed on supporting Egypt's opposition, on challenging China, on continuing the destabilising strategy of drone attacks and on carefully supporting regime change in Syria.

Mr Romney no doubt raised eyebrows by claiming: "America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators." The latter statement is arguably true; the former is patently false. And opponents of Mr Obama bristled at the president's oft-condescending tone and know-it-all demeanour. Yet zingers and one-liners are not policy.

Harold Macmillan, the former British prime minster, identified what influences government thinking most: "events". And events, as any voter should know, are not up for debate.