Vice Presidential Debate of October 11, 2012: AHA Roundtable

The Grand Illusion

Emily Rosenberg, October 2012

Emily RosenbergThursday evening’s Vice Presidential debate covered an array of issues, but it began with, and was dominated by, foreign policy.  Traditionally, Vice Presidential debates have had little effect on campaign or elections—mostly providing the gaffs or the guffaws that pundits like to highlight:  memorable lines such as Admiral James Stockdale’s wide-eyed “Who am I?  Why am I here?”(1992);  Lloyd Bentsen’s sharp “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine; you’re no Jack Kennedy”(1988); Bob Dole’s  “if we added up the killed and wounded in Democrat wars in this century, it'd be about one point six million Americans - enough to fill the city of Detroit."(1976). This debate, however, seemed closely tethered to the messaging of both campaigns. It is worth examining, especially on the Republican side, because Paul Ryan’s lack of foreign policy experience meant that he had been especially carefully scripted. 

Ryan provided variations on the themes that Mitt Romney introduced in his “major” foreign policy speech earlier in the week:  Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s death in Benghazi, Libya, on 9/11 became the centerpiece of a critique of Obama’s “weakness.”  Romney and Ryan extended their critique to policy on Iran (not tough enough), on Syria (not tough enough on Bashar al-Assad), on Egypt (not tough enough), on the Soviet Union (not tough enough), on China (not tough enough), and on Afghanistan (should not withdraw on any timetable).  To every foreign policy problem the Romney/Ryan team is proposing is the same answer: clarity of “values,” tough talk, a big military build-up, and avoidance of the UN will reshape the world to our wishes. 

The advantage of this prescription for success in foreign policy is that it is both appealing and  familiar. It’s appealing because it requires little detailed knowledge of the world’s variation or complexity.  It reassuringly assumes that the United States should be able to work its will everywhere, and thus that problems exist because it has not done so forcefully enough.  It is familiar because this was the version of the world that Ronald Reagan projected and popularized.  Reagan’s highly successful playbook in 1980 (a year, incidentally, when there was no vice presidential debate) turned Jimmy Carter into the personification of weakness, championed a huge increase in defense spending, and rhetorically renewed the Cold War duality of a “city on a hill” battling an “evil empire.”  Many Reagan supporters later misleadingly popularized the idea that huge military budget increases and overblown rhetoric were primarily responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union. 

This idea that foreign policy should be based on military build-ups, tough talk, and a focus on “values” has continued to echo among neoconservative policy advisers.  In 2003 many of this persuasion assured President George W. Bush and the American public that invading Iraq would bring quick success and launch a subsequent domino effect of pro-American regime change elsewhere in the Middle East.  And now again, such views are being re-articulated as serious policy in the Romney/Ryan campaign, which is dominated largely by foreign policy advisers who served under the Bush administration.  They advance a litany of American decline in an attempt to Jimmy Carterize the Obama presidency.  Ryan, completely inexperienced in foreign policy himself, has apparently been schooled to perpetuate the same uncomplicated illusions about what constitutes “strength.”   Martha Raddatz asks what he thinks would justify sending American troops into war.  Only for reasons of “national security,” he earnestly answers, dodging the specifics about when he would apply his implied threat of force in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere.

The history of foreign policy, of course, constantly mocks broad and self-gratifying generalizations. Peace may come through military preparedness, but then so may unnecessary war.  The UN may temporize, but it may also organize collective actions. Nations may react in very different ways to American policymaker’s “moral clarity,” whatever that might mean.  Ryan’s debate performance showed that his party was again peddling a grand illusion about how America can get its way in the world—attractive and familiar but simplistic and dangerous.

Emily Rosenberg is professor of history at University of California, Irvine.