Martha Raddatz Won the Debate

Jacob Heilbrunn

The clear winner of the debate last night wasn't Joe Biden or Paul Ryan. It was Martha Raddatz of ABC News. She asked both candidates tough questions, sought to keep them on track and brooked no nonsense, in contrast to the hapless Jim Lehrer, who should be forced to watch reruns of all the presidential debates for a month as penance for his lackluster performance. As Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times notes, Raddatz "acted like a working journalist rather than a television personality." The verdict, as Politico reports, seems pretty much unanimous: Raddatz ruled.

As to who came out on top among the two candidates, the verdict is unequivocal. Biden thumped Ryan. Not as badly as Mitt Romney lacerated President Obama during the first debate, but Biden exposed many of the contradictions in Ryan's stances. Foreign policy was especially glaring.

Consider Afghanistan. Here the Romney campaign's attempts to create bogus distinctions and controversies emerged clearly. Biden said "we're leaving" in 2014. Ryan said that he and Romney agree with the date. But they wouldn't commit to it. It would simply embolden the Taliban, he said. So 2014 is supposed to be a secret? Either we're leaving or we're not. Biden pounced. Ryan left himself open to the impression that Romney would stay on in Afghanistan—a deeply unpopular position.

Then there's Syria. Once again Ryan produced foreign-policy bluster. Biden said there's no way that the Obama administration was going to get sucked into another war in the Middle East. Ryan huffed and puffed that the administration isn't doing enough. He complained that we've oursourced our foreign policy to the United Nations. And that Obama is letting Russia determine the course of events in Syria. But he couldn't say what he and Romney would do differently.

When it came to domestic policy, a similar lack of clarity prevailed. Where would the trillions come from that Romney is proposing to lavish on the military? Ryan couldn't say. The home-mortgage deduction? Ryan wouldn't say if it would be preserved (even though it shouldn't). And so on.

No, Ryan's performance was hardly a disaster. He didn't commit any of the dreaded gaffes that press is longing for, and he remained polite and personable, even as Biden adopted the demeanor of one of the participants in a Washington Sunday morning talk show. Mostly what Biden provided was balm for the jangled nerves of Democrats who suffered a mental meltdown over the president's debate against Romney. Since then the Obama campaign has been in a kind of intensive ward with various doctors prescribing nostrums to reanimate the patient who seems to be showing fitful signs of recovery.

Whether this debate will affect the polls or even votes is dubious. The next Obama-Romney slugfest—and it is likely to be much harder hitting—will be more important to deciding the outcome. But it will take a tough moderator to make it as interesting as the one last night. The person who really proved herself last night was Raddatz. Maybe the debate sponsors should can the other upcoming moderators and sign up Raddatz to do the rest.

Image of Paul Ryan: Tony Alter/Gobonobo

Image of Joe Biden: World Economic Forum

TopicsThe Presidency RegionsUnited States

The Biden Counter-Doctrine

The Buzz

In advance of tonight’s vice presidential debate, James Traub has a column up at Foreign Policy on Joe Biden. Titled “The Biden Doctrine,” the piece examines the vice president’s role in the Obama administration’s decision-making process on foreign policy. He contends that among the president’s senior advisers, Biden is “first among equals” and that “on foreign policy, Biden is the most powerful U.S. vice president in history save for his immediate predecessor, Dick Cheney.”

Yet despite this “exceptional role,” as Traub delves into the substance of Obama’s foreign policy it becomes clear that on a number of significant issues, Biden has been overruled or ignored. The most obvious example was during the administration’s 2009 Afghan strategy review, where Biden was a strong critic of the counterinsurgency strategy proposed by Petraeus, McChrystal and the Pentagon. Biden argued for a more modest, counterterrorism-focused effort. But the president generally went along with the generals’ recommendations, approving a “surge” of thirty thousand troops with a limited counterinsurgency mission.

Likewise, Biden opposed America’s intervention in Libya. As a senior White House official explained Biden’s reasoning to Traub, the intervention “didn’t go to core interests. It wasn’t something he thought was necessary to do.”

What’s most interesting here is that if you take Biden’s thinking to its logical end, you start to get the outlines of a forceful and coherent critique of the administration’s foreign policy. As Traub writes on the Afghanistan surge:

Even many of Obama's supporters in the foreign-policy community regard it as his worst decision. In exchange for a vast investment of blood and treasure, the United States has made military gains that may prove transitory, has trained troops still unable to act on their own, and has watched helplessly as Afghan President Hamid Karzai has protected corrupt and brutal figures.

In short, this is a realist message: the United States should recognize its limited ability to reshape societies on the other side of the world. Washington should refrain from intervening unless there are core national interests at stake and it possesses the ability to achieve its objectives at some sort of acceptable cost. Among other things, such a policy would support a faster drawdown in Afghanistan and deep skepticism about any future Libyas. With public support for the Afghan war plummeting, one can imagine this message gaining some traction (to the extent that anyone will vote based on foreign policy in this election cycle).

However, this is not at all the critique that the Republican Party is interested in advancing now. Instead, Mitt Romney and his allies have preferred to attack Obama from the other extreme, accusing him of being an appeaser, not believing in American exceptionalism, apologizing for America and so on. They have preferred to blast Obama in general terms on issues such as Iran, while often remaining vague about what exactly they would do differently in practice.

And so, when Paul Ryan takes the stage tonight, it is a safe bet that his attacks on Obama’s foreign-policy record will be largely grounded in the neocon philosophy. Where he differs with Obama, he will call for more defense spending, talk about the need for a more vocal defense of American values abroad and possibly exhibit greater willingness to resort to the use of force. Given where U.S. public opinion stands, this is unlikely to gain much resonance. Ironically, Biden, who has been the more effective critic of Obama’s foreign policy on a number of key issues, will be the one defending the president on those issues tonight.

TopicsElectionsThe PresidencyPolitics RegionsUnited States

Iraq Comes Full Circle

Paul Pillar

Russian machine guns captured during Operation Iraqi Freedom.Back in the 1950s and 1960s, sales of munitions were a major instrument that the Soviet Union used, most conspicuously in the Middle East, to cultivate influence and close ties with other regimes. Such sales also had obvious benefits for the Soviet arms industry. In addition to such clients as Egypt and Syria, Iraq became a major customer after a military coup in 1958 led by General Abdel Karim Kassem ended the Iraqi monarchy. Kassem lifted a ban on the Iraqi Communist Party, severed Iraq's security ties with the West (which had included membership in the Baghdad Pact), and turned to the USSR as his principal security patron and arms supplier. Kassem lost his power and his life when a Baathist coup overthrew him in 1963. The United States had good information about the coup plot and evidently smiled on it, out of concern over growing communist influence under Kassem. Several years of instability and short-lived regimes in Iraq followed until the Baath Party regained control and Saddam Hussein emerged from it to establish his dictatorship. The Soviets sold plenty more arms to Iraq under the Baathists, regardless of what U.S. officials may have hoped for in 1958.

Moscow's arms market in Iraq was disrupted when the U.S. invasion overthrew Saddam. But now the current Iraqi government of Nuri al-Maliki has concluded a contract to buy Russian arms worth more than $4.2 billion, according to a joint statement issued after negotiations between Maliki and Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev. The deal features attack helicopters and surface-to-air missile systems. Further discussions under way between Russia and Iraq aim at additional arms sales that would include MiG-29 fighters, more helicopters and other heavy weaponry. The Russians of today, like the Soviets of yesteryear, do not seem to have any of the compunctions, which sometimes figure into American deliberations about arms exports, including to Iraq, about the recipient's human-rights record or other political conditions in the recipient country. It is not out of the question for Russia to replace the United States in the foreseeable future as Iraq's largest arms supplier.

We can draw several implications from this news. One is that it fills in further the picture of what legacy was left in Iraq by the U.S. war that ousted Saddam. The regime that emerged from the rubble is not only increasingly authoritarian and narrowly sectarian and not only chummy with Iran; it also is becoming a client of Moscow. A trifecta of failure.

A second lesson concerns the notion that committing military support to a new regime in the making is essential for having a good relationship with it and to be considered a friend rather than a adversary once such a regime comes to power. This idea is being heard increasingly as an argument for doing more to assist rebels in Syria. We need to get in on the ground floor with the new bunch and accept risks and commit major resources, it is said, in order to be held in favor by whatever regime emerges from that rubble. But the United States got in on the ground floor more than once in Iraq—with the Baathists in 1958 and with the successors to Saddam after he was overthrown. In the latter case it did so with the expenditure of enormous resources. And look how much friendship and influence it bought.

Finally, the fact that Iraq's latest turn is reminiscent of what happened in the late 1950s suggests that the arrow of time in the Middle East does not point as much in one direction as many like to think it does. The progression of events there, even with pushes or leadership by the United States, does not necessarily run in the direction of more political freedom, more free enterprise, or whatever. Maybe in thinking about this we can get help not from the monotheistic religions of the Middle East but instead from religions of South Asia—the ones that envision a wheel of life on which we keep going round and round. Buddhists would say it is possible in a sense to get off the wheel, but only through self-enlightenment and not through a push from someone else. This is what Thomas Friedman seems to be saying in his column on Wednesday when he writes, “the Middle East only puts a smile on your face when change starts with them [i.e., Middle Easterners], not us.”

Think about that the next time someone talks about how the Middle East would be more to our liking if the United States would only be more assertive there.

TopicsHuman RightsForeign AidReligionPost-Conflict RegionsRussiaIranIraqUnited StatesSyria

Obama the Grouch?

The Buzz

The residents of Sesame Street are not happy with President Obama.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization that produces and owns Sesame Street, has “asked the Obama campaign to pull down an ad released Tuesday that shows an image of Big Bird and mocks Republican nominee Mitt Romney for holding up the popular children's character as a symbol of unnecessary government spending.”

‘We have approved no campaign ads and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials,’ said Sesame Workshop.

Both sides of the media have gone after the Big Bird story with gusto. A different WSJ piece points out that Big Bird “likes to maximize revenues and investment gains as much as the next muppet,” citing the $289 million in total assets held by Sesame Workshop at the end of fiscal year 2011 and comparing it to the $8 million Sesame Street receives annually from the government. It calls Big Bird a “symbol of federal programs that allegedly require eternal taxpayer aid, even if it has to be put on the future tax bill of today’s pre-schoolers.”

Jon Stewart addressed the matter at length on Monday night’s Daily Showsurveying responses from conservative commentators and later presenting Patriot Street, a version of Sesame Street made “more palatable to conservatives.”

There can be no denying the entertainment value of this particular campaign scuffle. But with the election fewer than thirty days away, shouldn’t we be focusing on something a bit more substantive? Surely there are bigger issues at stake than who will lose the six-year-old vote.

TopicsDomestic PoliticsElectionsMuckety MucksPublic OpinionThe Presidency

The New Narrative in Benghazi

The Buzz

The AP reports that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has received testimony that contradicts the administration's initial explanation of the Benghazi attacks.

The committee hearing followed assertions Tuesday night by the State Department that it never concluded that the Sept. 11 attack stemmed from protests over an American-made video ridiculing Islam. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in what the administration now says was a terrorist attack.

Asked about the administration's initial—and since retracted—explanation linking the violence to protests over the anti-Muslim video circulating on the Internet, one official said, "That was not our conclusion."

This is certainly new news. The question now remains, is this shifting story significant to the campaign? There is something a bit fishy about the changing narrative. Assuming it does amount to an administration screw up, had State been more forthcoming with the "real" story, would it still be an issue? Only time will tell.

TopicsPolitics RegionsUnited States