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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.

Heres what you need to know about the forthcoming presidential election: Whoever you vote for in November, you wont 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 ballotat 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 peaceoften as justification for their latest military venture. But, he explains, the "p-word" doesn't come up much anymore. "On the occasion ofprematurely? 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 moreis peaceful. We want a peaceful planet. We want people to be able to enjoy their lives and know theyre 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, its our objective. We have an opportunity to have real leadership. Americas going to have that kind of leadership and continue to promote principles of peace thatll 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 pointdismantled by a derisive President Obama last nightabout 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 Americas 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 aa responsibility and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles thatthat 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 dont 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, its 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 expediencyor some mix of bothmotivated 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 presidents 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?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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Mollie, good post. The confluence between President Obama and Governor Romney seemed the most notable feature of last night's debate. (I recorded the debate and haven't managed to watch all of it yet, so I'm saying this based on the first hour of content).I've mentioned a couple of times previously that on CNN, there is real-time feedback from a focus group of undecided voters during the debate. The split between men and women was really noticeable this time: every time either of the candidates would speak positively of diplomacy, negotiation or peace, the women's feedback went up sharply. And every time they took an aggressive, hard-nosed stance, the women's feedback dipped, and the men's spiked (the latter was particularly notable with regard to Governor Romney's words).

I'm not sure I'd call Bacevich's piece "bracing." I found it deeply depressing, and (unfortunately) absolutely accurate in its assessment of America's defense (or do I mean "defense"?) policy. That said, a week or two ago, Romney, in citing his differences with Obama, pointed out that his proposed expansion of the military would help unemployment because of all the jobs it would create, in the armed forces and presumably the defense industries. Yet elsewhere, it seems to me, he has been saying that it's not the federal government that creates jobs, but "small" business (whatever that "small" may mean in his mind). The feds could also create a great many jobs were the feds (and states) to launch great infrastructure rebuilding programs, putting highways, railways, bridges, buildings, airports, etc. etc. back together again, somewhat as FDR did. But I doubt very much whether R. would support such a program.Why does he think that we need a larger military, when we already outspend all the rest of the world put together? How would three or four more aircraft carriers (for instance) have helped us to guide the Arab spring to a happier conclusion? Does his version of loyalty to our allies extend, let's say, to Pakistan, where in the last year a 13-year old girl has been threatened with being stoned to death for defacing a Koran, and a 14-year old girl is now in a London hospital after an attempt to murder her? (I hope she stays in London; she's obviously very brave, but let's not allow her to be foolhardy).

Jim Pauwels:Re your comment: "every time either of the candidates would speak positively of diplomacy, negotiation or peace, the womens feedback went up sharply."It seems to me that Romney's words about peace were nothing more than a attempt to get the women's vote.I am reminded of the Greek comedy, Lysistrata (411 BCE) by Aristophanes. Lysistrata persuades the women of Athens to refuse to make love with their husbands until they negotiate a peace with Sparta. The men give in and summon envoys from Sparta. The play ends with the Athenians and the Spartans dancing together in celebration of peace.

SIDEBARA weird thing happened here today. There has never been any question whatsoeverl about who would win the election here in super-conservative Louisiana. But today the early voters have broken all records for early voting. The pundits are scratching their heads: Why are these conservatives so anxious to vote? OR WERE THEY really a bunch of conservatives? On the national level, more people watched the debate than watched the football games on TV.Hmmmm.

Yet Romney's ads continue to bludgeon Obama for "weakness" and "making apologies". This is certainly no attempt to pursue a peace agenda or boost our diplomacy. In fact Romeny is being continually advised by exactly those war hawks that got us into these fixes and conflicts. His comments about the number of navy ships is clear evidence that he is strongly in favor of war making expenditures and not overtures for peace.

Some insight on relevant current and future likely events comes from a WashPost article (10/23, 1st of 3) on plans for hunting terrorists in the years ahead. In contrast to the decades past to which Andrew Bacevich refers, the notion of "peace" or some equivalent stopping of hostilities becomes difficult to describe in the existing environment.

For all intents and purposes, America has been at war for the last seventy years. And along the way, we have killed millions upon millions of civilians who were just in the way.

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