The "foreign policy" debate on Monday night -- this event could more accurately be labelled the "imperial management" debate -- is going to be painful for those of us who think we've had enough wars and that the U.S. should get out of the business of telling people in other countries how they ought to organize themselves. Four years ago most voters were war-weary; we'd spent a decade frittering away lives and treasure for no particular purpose in Iraq and Afghanistan. We picked a president who seemed to understand that better than the other guy, even if he had to pay some homage with the ever-present flag pin on his lapel to imperial rituals.
Without ever breaking verbally from the pattern, Obama has delivered a measure of realism to our international doings. David Sanger spelled out some of the differences:
Obama knows we can't afford unlimited empire; Romney and the Republicans insist enough bluster and accompanying death and destruction in other people's countries will work out just fine. There's a clear lesser evil choice here: no matter how disappointing Obama has been, his administration offers more room for sanity than the alternative.
No doubt Obama has been disappointing. He's developed and deeply embedded among the executive branch's powers the facilities for making war on the cheap: drone attacks on those we define as "enemies" even in other people's countries; unconstrained secret global spying including on our own citizens as part of "security" business as usual; permanent detention without trial for official enemies (see Guantanamo and Bagram); and secret cyberattacks on governments we don't like such as Iran. It's quite a catalogue and we don't know the half -- we're not supposed to know about any of it. When someone lifts the curtain, the leaker can expect to end up locked away: see Bradley Manning. Permanent secret war and its crimes have become the accepted norm under this president.
But mendacious Mitt wants to take us back to the glory years of the U.S. imperium. Sanger memorably calls this "Eisenhower envy." That's probably why he has occasionally blurted out his hostility to Russia -- he's never gotten over thinking the (no longer extant) Soviet Union is our great competitor. Since he can't really be that dumb and he demonstrably feels no obligation to tell the electorate any truths about what he really intends in any arena, I don't imagine we'll learn anything much about what he'd do as President from the "foreign policy" debate.
What's even more distressing than the positions of the candidates is that openness to another war -- an attack on Iran -- seems to be gaining in the electorate:
We wouldn't like the aftermath if we did it. The military establishment seems to understand this better than the civilians -- not only in the United States, but even in Israel where the impetus for war originates. The institutions that would have to do the dirty deed have learned to recognize a quagmire when offered one.
As long as there is not a durable political consensus among U.S. voters that imperial wars are not worth it -- unaffordable, can't' be "won," and simply wrong -- our politicians will bluff, weave and posture trying to uphold the illusion of world-dominating empire. And our social services, safety net, educational institutions, roads, and lives will continue to deteriorate. But we can't entirely blame the politicians so long as the people continue to thrill to the siren song of empire. It's over, folks. Learn to live with it.