Foreign Policy Consensus in Obama-Romney Debate Depressing

The extent of agreement between President Obama and Mitt Romney in the third presidential debate was depressing.

As Bill Maher jokingly tweeted, “I've seen wider ideological differences between Jehovah's Witnesses.”

Nowhere was this more apparent than on the issue of Israel. Both candidates went on at length to proclaim their fealty to the state of Israel while failing to take it to task for its reluctance to move toward peace. In fact, it was Romney who gave the only mention of the Palestinians the whole night.

Israel also figured prominently in the debate about Iran, and the way it was approached starkly showed the consensus between both the major parties.

In keeping with tradition, there was silence on Israel’s nuclear arsenal. In all the debate about Iran’s hypothetical nuclear bomb, Israel’s real weapons were completely ignored.

And then we come to the crucial issue of Iran and the bomb. Both candidates agree that it is absolutely unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. The notion is based on two misconceptions: that Iran is singularly irrational, and that it’ll pass on such technology to terrorist groups. Both claims are questionable.

“More than three decades of history demonstrate that the Islamic Republic’s rulers, like most rulers elsewhere, are overwhelmingly concerned with preserving their regime and their power—in this life, not some future one,” writes former senior intelligence official Paul Pillar in the Washington Monthly. “They are no more likely to let theological imperatives lead them into self-destructive behavior than other leaders whose religious faiths envision an afterlife.’

And as for the contention that Iran will “share” its bomb, Pillar responds: “Nothing is said about why Iran or any other regime ever would have an incentive to do this. In fact, Tehran would have strong reasons not to do it. Why would it want to lose control over a commodity that is scarce as well as dangerous? And how would it achieve deniability regarding its role in what the group subsequently did with the stuff?”

Such questions were far from evident in last night debate, where the dynamic was instead that of both candidates trying to outflank each other on the right.

Certainly, there were instances where Romney attacked Obama, most notably with his ridiculous assertion about Obama’s “apology tour” of the Middle East. Romney was also more noticeably hawkish on defense outlays (although even here Obama made a point of noting that “military spending has gone up every single year I've been in office").

On the other hand, Romney was surprisingly conciliatory on Pakistan, asserting that the United States had to work with the country’s security establishment, in spite of its troubling history.

Now, much of what Romney had to say just may be twaddle to show the undecideds that he is not an extremist. It definitely goes against the scary neocon advisers he has (most prominently John Bolton and Dan Senor).

But the fact that Obama and Romney agreed so much shows us something. And what it reveals does not speak well for this country’s handling of the world.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Pakistan’s Heartening Response to Hideous Attack."

Follow Amitabh Pal @amitpal on Twitter