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30 October, 2012

It's a matter of style

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Whether Barack Obama remains President of the United States for four more years or Mitt Romney edges past him into the White House in next month’s elections may make little difference to the rest of the world. All indications are that if there is a change in foreign policy at all it may be one of style rather than of substance.

In the last of their televised encounters, Romney, who has had little exposure to foreign affairs, repeatedly tried to steer the debate into domestic affairs. When he was forced to discuss foreign policy, he continuously slid back from his earlier positions and ended up virtually endorsing everything Obama has done in the last four years.

Once upon a time the two parties did have different perspectives on foreign affairs. When a Republican administration took over the Philippines from Spain in the late 19th century the Democratic Party disapproved of the colonial adventure and vowed to grant that country freedom. On coming to power, it kept the promise even though after experiencing Japanese occupation during World War II the Filipinos were in no hurry to gain independence.

Once the US emerged as the world’s most powerful nation and Presidents felt obliged to carry forward their predecessor’s wars the differences between the parties started narrowing down. Today the two are as alike as Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Quite naturally the Middle East, where the US has made the heaviest military investment since the end of the Vietnam conflict, figured prominently in the campaign, and it came up in the presidential debate too. However, rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding, the two candidates appeared to broadly agree on issues concerning the region.

Israel is, of course, the centrepiece of the US policy in the region. When Obama entered the presidential race in 2008 he was not a favourite of the Zionists or of America’s powerful Jewish lobby. He dutifully reassured them by proclaiming that, like the earlier Presidents, he was ready to use the UN Security Council veto to safeguard Israel’s interests.

As Obama began this year’s campaign, the Pentagon committed $70 million for Israel’s missile defence system in addition to the $4 billion the US provides that country annually without any conditions. However, the Zionist attitude towards him remains unchanged. Last week Zionist Torah leader Rabbi Eliezer Melamed referred to him as “perhaps the most hostile President Israel ever faced.”

Although Obama did not fulfil Arab expectations of a change in the US approach to the problems of the Middle East, public opinion in the region is said to be still favourable to him, primarily because few view Romney as a desirable alternative.

China-bashing has been a part of the US campaign rhetoric since the Cold War days. As the challenger, Obama had taken the lead in this department in 2008. It was now Romney’s turn, and he called China currency manipulator—it has allowed its currency to appreciate 37.5 per cent against the US dollar in real terms—and threatened to crack down on it. However, when Obama reminded him of his business dealings with China, he quietly dropped the subject.
, 2012.
The topics that did not come up underscore the unreal nature of the foreign policy debate. The US had recently announced an eastward shift in its global defence perspective. Yet Japan and South Korea, which have been key elements in the US policy in the Asia Pacific region since the end of the World War, and India, which is now seen as a potential strategic partner, did not figure in the campaign. Africa and Latin America, the US neighbourhood which is witnessing significant changes, also received short shrift.

Foreign policy debates in the US tend to be superficial as it is not an issue of major concern to the American people. With the media generally endorsing successive administrations’ moves uncritically, there has been little opportunity for crystallisation of informed opinion on international affairs. There is only one occasion in living memory when things worked out differently. That was when highly critical reports by a band of young reporters in the field created a groundswell of public opinion against the war in Vietnam.

There is a simple explanation for the differing styles displayed by Obama and Romney in this year’s campaign. Obama has been acting like the Super Power Commander-in-Chief that he is and Romney like the Super Cop that he fancies himself to be.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, October 30

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