Giving ‘peace’ a chance
Andrew Bacevich’s contribution to our Election 2012 series, “Endless War” (published in our October 12 issue), is a bracing assessment of where the candidates stand, and what choice they offer (or do not offer) voters, when it comes to foreign policy.
Here’s what you need to know about the forthcoming presidential election: Whoever you vote for in November, you won’t be voting for peace. Just as there is no credible peace party in American politics, so too there will be no peace candidate on the ballot—at least none with any substantial following.
During the two World Wars, Bacevich writes, and for a long time afterward, “peace remained the actual or theoretical or pretended objective of U.S. policy.” He cites speech after speech after speech in which presidents announced their intentions to bring about peace—often as justification for their latest military venture. But, he explains, the “p-word” doesn’t come up much anymore. “On the occasion of—prematurely? comically?—receiving the Nobel Peace Prize,” Bacevich writes, “the president seemed more interested in justifying war than in offering a clarion call for its elimination.”
Nothing in last night’s foreign policy debate (transcript here) contradicts Bacevich’s point. But “peace” did come up, and it was Mitt Romney who kept talking about it. Answering a question about Hosni Mubarak, Romney said, “Let me step back and talk about what I think our mission has to be in the Middle East, and even more broadly, because our purpose is to make sure the world is more—is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know they’re going to have a bright and prosperous future and not be at war.” Later, he said that “our mission” in Iran “is to dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means.” And in his closing statement, he said:
I want to see peace. I want to see growing peace in this country, it’s our objective. We have an opportunity to have real leadership. America’s going to have that kind of leadership and continue to promote principles of peace that’ll make a world the safer place and make people in this country more confident that their future is secure.
None of that runs contrary to Bacevich’s conclusion, based on his reading of the Romney campaign’s foreign-policy white paper: “One suspects that the Romney camp values peace chiefly as a euphemism for American hegemony.” (From that campaign statement: “Mitt Romney rejects the philosophy of decline in all of its variants. He believes that a strong America is the best guarantor of peace and the best patron of liberty the world has ever known.”)
The trouble for Romney in approaching last night’s debate is that he wants to characterize Obama as an incompetent leader without disagreeing materially with anything Obama has actually done. When it came to explaining what he might do differently, Romney was at a loss beyond vague assurances about “leadership.” And his campaign’s foreign-policy statement, linked above, is similarly heavy on rhetoric and lean on proposals. Under “action for the first hundred days,” the very first priority listed is building more ships to beef up the navy, a policy based on the campaign’s ridiculous talking point—dismantled by a derisive President Obama last night—about the U.S. navy being smaller than it was in 1916. According to “An American Century,” Romney’s plan to build more ships “will restore America’s presence and credibility on the high seas with a view toward deterring aggressive behavior and maintaining the peace.” In other words, the currently peaceful conditions demand more preparations for war.
Obama, for his part, did not bring up “peace.” So why did Romney? If the GOP is so keen to paint Obama as an appeaser and a weakling, and so dedicated to frightening forecasts regarding Iran and Israel, why go back to the p-word so often? Romney’s answer to a question from Bob Schieffer about “America’s role in the world” also explains his debate strategy:
I absolutely believe that America has a—a responsibility and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that—that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections, because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war.
Both Obama and Romney seemed to be making the same assumption regarding American voters: they are sick of war and are going to vote for the guy who seems less likely to start another one. Obama used a version of a favorite line several times last night, in turning the conversation back to domestic affairs: “What I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war, it’s time to do some nation-building here at home.” Romney, in last night’s debate, and Paul Ryan, in his debate with Joe Biden, worked hard to seem like they are even less keen to go to war than the present administration. But they had to do it without criticizing anything Obama has done as too aggressive. It’s a difficult dance.
Fortunately, Romney can count on a loyal cadre of right-wing pundits to help his cause, as Kevin Drum noted today at Mother Jones. “Think about what we saw last night: Mitt Romney dispassionately marched through the entire oeuvre of conservative obsessions on foreign policy and rejected virtually every single one of them. He’s getting out of Afghanistan with no conditions; he’s happy we helped get rid of Hosni Mubarak; he’ll take no serious action against Syria; he wants to indict Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the World Court; he didn’t even mention Benghazi; and he refused to say straight-up that he’d support Israel if they bombed Iran. It’s the kind of performance that should have had a guy like Charles Krauthammer tearing his hair out.” And yet, rather than lament his weak showing, Krauthammer declared Romney the winner, and other conservatives followed suit, praising the candidate’s “strategy.” Much like the conservatives who waved away concerns about Romney’s fidelity to their cause after he seemed to abandon his previous opposition to the HHS contraceptive mandate, these loyal boosters are not worried about principles at this point. Romney’s job is to say whatever it takes to get the undecideds to vote Obama out.
Which brings us back to Bacevich, who wrote that
whether conviction or expediency—or some mix of both—motivated these presidents to talk of peace is difficult to discern…. How seriously ordinary Americans took all the peace talk is likewise difficult to measure. When Franklin Roosevelt, in a fireside chat delivered on Christmas Eve in 1943, vowed “to rid the world of evil” and added that “winning the war” meant “winning a just peace that will last for generations,” did his listeners take the president’s words at face value? Or did they dismiss it as political speechifying?
I’d certainly like to think it’s true that American voters, if given the chance, will vote against war. But is it good news that at least one candidate for president is talking about “peace,” if it is widely assumed by his own supporters that the talk is just expedient speechifying?