The Barack Obama we saw in his second debate with Mitt Romney was the self-assured and experienced leader we have wanted to see glaring sternly at Benjamin Netanyahu.
Thus far, in his first term in office, that second debate Barack Obama has rarely been in evidence in matters pertaining to Israel. Will that President show up for the third presidential debate Monday, October 22?
Or will we see a more cautious Obama on stage for the third and final debate?
That debate will be held in at Lynn University, Boca Raton, Florida. It will focus exclusively on foreign policy.
Foreign policy should be Obama’s strongest suit. He has much to point to in this field, most notably the ending of one war and the anticipated ending of a second. He is expected to acquit himself well Monday night, especially if he enters the debate with the enthusiasm and energy he displayed in the second debate at Hofstra University last week.
Romney, on the other hand, is a one-term governor from Massachusetts, who has spent most of his professional career as a business executive. He is a foreign policy neophyte, entirely dependent on largely Republican neoconservative advisors. Romney is woefully unprepared either to debate foreign policy or to lead the nation in foreign policy endeavors.
His long personal relationship to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been highlighted by his campaign. It does not, however, bode well for future negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
After hearing Romney’s speech to Virginia Military Academy cadets, Juan Cole had an epiphany about Romney’s career prior to this election campaign:
Apparently it is possible to sit in cushy big offices in companies like Bain, and to remain completely ignorant of foreign affairs. Romney’s speeches are all just a replaying for us of the prejudices of CEOs when they play golf together and complain vaguely about the Chinese, Russians, Arabs, and so forth. Or, maybe Romney has gotten so many campaign contributions from arms manufacturers that he can’t help see foreign affairs through the lens of new wars he wants to fight.
Obama, on the other hand, is determined to keep this country away from any further wars. Obama knows, however, that we have enemies who want to do us harm. Which is why he was able to display leadership, not arrogance, in the debate “Libya moment” following Romney’s allegations about the Benghazi, Libya, attack.
The President was very much the commander in chief as he displayed an appropriate balance of indignation and quiet fury, glaring at Romney for what Obama felt was a political manipulation of the loss of four American lives in Benghazi. This is what the President said:
“The suggestion that anybody in my team, whether the secretary of state, our U.N. ambassador, anybody on my team would play politics and mislead, when we lost four of our own, Governor, is offensive. That’s not what we do, that’s not what I do as president, that’s not what I do as commander in chief.”
What prompted this response was a verbal attack from Romney which the Republican candidate had expected would be his “gotcha” moment. Unfortunately for him, he told 65 million television viewers that Obama had not used the term “terror” to the day after the attack. Instead, almost gleefully, Romney added that the President had waited two weeks to call the Benghazi attack an “act of terror”.
That statement was blatantly wrong, as the debate moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, quickly pointed out. She told Romney that the President had, in fact used the term “terror” in the Rose Garden the day after the attack.
Below is clip of Romney’s “gotcha moment”, a moment that did not go the way Romney had hoped:
This debate moment could make a major difference in the thinking of that shrinking number of undecided voters in crucial swing states. Will they see that moment as an indication that Romney is a wealthy corporate executive who is not ready for prime time presidential leadership? Or will they forgive him as someone who had stumbled because of bad pre-debate briefings?
In Monday night’s final debate, President Obama should be in a position to affect those undecided voters by further exposing Governor Romney’s inexperience in foreign policy. To do this, Obama will have to ignore those advisors at his side who will have reminded him of the ever-present Israel Lobby, the “elephant in the room”. That Lobby controls the U.S. Congress and and also extends its tentacles deep into the executive branch.
Romney has no worries about the “elephant in the room”. He will enter the debate stage Monday night riding the elephant. Romney’s loyalty to Israel, which he made quite evident in his recent fund-raising visit to Israel, and in his campaign rhetoric, has brought him considerable cash and may well make the difference in the voting margin in the key swing state of Florida.
It was that summer visit to Israel that solidified Romney’s position as the elephant rider. One of his chief financial contributor is U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who funded Romney’s trip to Israel. That trip was arranged by Dan Senor, a neoconservative who has emerged as a key foreign policy advisor for the Romney campaign.
Senor is not a foreign policy expert. His experience and area of expertise is public relations. He was the chief PR official in Iraq during the occupation of Iraq. Later Senor wrote a book that praised Israel’s cultural superiority in the region, a position Governor Romney promoted in a speech in Jerusalem.
Senor did not serve Romney well in encouraging him to speak of Israel’s superior cultural qualities in the Middle East, a viewpoint that Senor pushed in his own book, Start Up Nation: Israel’s Economic Miracle.
What care he, if he can take back the White House for the neoconservatives. Both Senor and Adelson are so eager to have Romney ride that “elephant in the room” straight into the Oval Office, that they worry less about what the liberal media calls gaffes, and far more about key votes in swing states.
To be sure, Obama, influenced in part by having to deal with an Israel Lobby-controlled Congress, has also worked hard to curry favor with the Lobby, and to appease Israeli leaders. He has been both insulted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he has rebuked the Israeli leader with some well placed snubs.
Which Obama will we see in the third debate, the appeaser of the Lobby or the President who glares at Netanyahu in righteous indignation?
Monday night, in the third debate, we could see Obama and Romney as two pro-Israel politicians trading jabs on who is Israel’s best friend. Or, just maybe, the Commander in Chief will be back on stage, confronting an elephant-riding Mitt Romney on behalf of the nation Obama was elected to lead in 2008/
A Closing Personal Political Note:
Former South Dakota Senator George McGovern has been admitted to hospice care in South Dakota. He is suffering from “a combination of medical conditions due to age that have worsened in recent months, his family said in a statement”.
“The senator is no longer responsive,” the statement said. “He is surrounded by his loving family and close friends.”
I have known George McGovern since 1971, when I was privileged to run, successfully, as one of his Illinois delegates to the Democratic National Convention. It was at that convention, held in Miami, Florida, when a young generation discovered that politics was a difficult but rewarding endeavor.
A World War II veteran who flew B-24 missions over Germany, McGovern was an anti-Viet Nam war presidential candidate who lost the 1972 election to Richard Nixon. He combined a love for life with a determination to defend his nation, when necessary.
His last official assignments allowed him to work in the area of world hunger. McGovern served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Agencies in Rome, Italy, 1998-2001. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on August 9, 2000, and was later appointed United Nations Global Ambassador on World Hunger in 2001. For more on McGovern’s biography, click here.
He studied theology for a year at Garrett Seminary, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois. He earned his Ph.D., in political science at Northwestern. Over the years since 1971, McGovern became a good friend of mine. He was both a spiritual and political inspiration to me and to many of my generation, including the Nation’s John Nichols, who wrote of his friendship with McGovern on McGovern’s 90th birthday.
I last interviewed McGovern for a blog posting during the early years of Barack Obama’s administration. You will find the Wall Writings link here. In that posting, I reported on a conversation McGovern and I had on the Palestinian-Israel situation, which he had followed closely for many years. I wrote this about our discussion:
What we lost when George McGovern did not make it to the White House might best be understood when we realize that McGovern not only reads and respects the work of Israeli peace activist Avraham Burg, he agrees with Burg”s statement on the conditions for a just peace, which Burg wrote in the Israeli journal, Yediot Aharonot in 2004:
“We cannot keep a Palestinian majority under an Israeli boot and at the same time think ourselves the only democracy in the Middle East. . . We must remove all the settlements and draw an internationally recognized border between the Israeli national home and the Palestinian national home.”
Marc Johnson, a veteran observer of South Dakota politics, has published a tribute to McGovern on his blog, The Johnson Post. While the posting should be read in full. I will lift up two paragraphs here:
The news this week that former South Dakota U.S. Senator George McGovern is in the last days of his 90 years is a reminder once again that even given our nasty, polarized, hyper-partisan politics one man can have an impact. The fact that McGovern, an unabashed liberal, made his impact for so many years in South Dakota, a state almost as conservative as Idaho, is remarkable.
And Johnson’s final summary paragraph:
George McGovern – historian, politician, failing presidential candidate, hunger advocate – will be treated better by the history books than he has been by his contemporaries. If you believe, as Tom Brokaw has dubbed McGovern’s contemporaries, that the World War II generation was America’s greatest, then the gentleman – the gentle man – from Avon, South Dakota, was a genuine example of personal greatness. Dare I say it – the U.S. Senate could use a few like him.
The cause of peace, justice and fairness in domestic and foreign policy, and the deep sense of decency in public life, will lose a great champion when George McGovern leaves us.
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The photo above is from Time magazine. It was taken by Bruce Bennett, for Getty Images. The picture of George McGovern is from The Directory of the U.S. Congress.