What Foreign Policy Debate?

Obama and Romney both embrace reckless interventionism.


Next week Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are scheduled to meet for their third and final presidential debate, this time focusing on foreign policy. Although he will be on the ballot in at least 48 states on November 6, Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party's nominee, was not invited, lest an actual debate about foreign policy break out.

Johnson, a former Republican governor of New Mexico, believes that so-called defense spending should be used for defense, that the United States "should resort to military action as the last option and only as provided in the Constitution," and that our foreign policy should be "reoriented toward the protection of U.S. citizens and interests." Obama and Romney, by contrast, believe "it is the responsibility of our president to use America's great power to shape history," as Romney put it in a recent speech.

During last week's vice presidential debate, Romney's running mate, Paul Ryan, struggled mightily to distinguish the two major parties' foreign policies. He was reduced to squabbling with Vice President Joe Biden about how often Obama meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and faulting the administration (over and over again) for describing Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad as a "reformer."

Ryan's main message was that Romney would do basically what Obama is doing but with more "credibility." It was clear that on all the major foreign policy issues Ryan and Biden discussed—including Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria—Obama and Romney have essentially the same positions.

In a debate limited to Obama and Romney, you will not hear anyone question, as Johnson does, whether frustrating Iran's nuclear ambitions is worth launching yet another war in the Middle East. You will not hear anyone wonder, as Johnson does, whether occupying Afghanistan for 13 years was the only way to "make sure that the Taliban does not come back in and give Al Qaeda a safe haven," which is how Ryan described the aim of the longest war in American history.

Biden did allow that as of next year "it is the responsibility of the Afghans to take care of their own security." What about Europe, Japan, and South Korea? That's the sort of question Johnson asks but Obama and Romney never will.

Another Johnson theme neglected by the two major parties: The Constitution requires the president to obtain congressional approval before starting a war. Although Obama once thought that principle was pretty important, he changed his mind after he was elected president, unilaterally intervening in Libya's civil war. Romney main complaints at the time were that Obama did not do so sooner and that he rashly ruled out the use of ground forces.

On the question of whether U.S. military action against Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi set a precedent for U.S. military action against Assad in Syria, Biden last week said no, because "it's a different country." Ryan agreed that "each situation will come up with its own set of circumstances." This is how unprincipled recklessness masquerades as prudence.

Although neither Obama nor Romney currently supports direct military intervention in Syria, both favor arming "friends who share our values" (as Romney puts it) with help from proxies such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. How's that going? This week The New York Times reported that "most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists."

Like Johnson, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) worries that "we are in too many places, too often, and we don't seem to even know the reason—or where we will end up when we're done." Instead of learning from foreign fiascos, Paul says in a recent CNN.com essay, "both parties rush headlong into more places they don't understand."

For strategic, fiscal, and moral reasons, we desperately need an alternative to what Paul calls our "'act first, think later' foreign policy." Unfortunately, neither major party is offering one.