23 October 2012

Presidential debates as job interview

The so-called 'foreign policy debate' with Gov. Romney and President Obama was the last of 3 Presidential and 1 Vice-Presidential debates staged for this election cycle.  Presidents and Governors are Executive level positions, spoken with the capital E for government as a branch of government, and often with a lower case E for positions that are heads of companies, institutions and charities.  What Presidents are, by and large, are the ones that need to execute on policy and run day-to-day affairs of whatever organization they are in charge of.  Being an executive is not a mandatory position, not a position one is coerced into doing but a position one must volunteer for through application for it.  For the Executive position of the United States this means going through a long cycle of party primaries and contests, lots of travel, working to form up policy positions, putting forward one's vision of how the policy of this Nation should change (or not change) for it to be successful, and then, if one is skilled and lucky enough, to then interview for the position via 'debates' with one's final opponent to see who gets the job.  Each citizen that is eligible to vote can cast a ballot (and I urge the eligible to do so) to help decide at their district and State level which candidate is to be backed.  As a representative democratic system in service to a republican form of government, this is an honor and a sacred duty to our fellow citizens as they ask it of us by this form of government.

With the final debate now passed I can only offer a few insights into it, but they are critical ones.

First off is that foreign policy is the most difficult for any challenger to accomplish unless they have held a Governorship for a State that has extensive foreign business contacts.  An incumbent President gets a head-start on this, and this should be the time to demonstrate competence, capacity and a clear foreign policy vision for the future path of our Nation amongst our brother Nations.

In theme and tenor, then, President Obama must offer a vision to show that after 4 years he understands what foreign policy is, why it works the way it does, and state quite explicitly what that vision is for the next 4 years.   The past 4 years should offer a plethora of examples of this on low (at the detailed levels) and on high (in our affairs with other Nations), and this area should be the strong point of any President seeking re-election.  Unfortunately President Obama came out to score points against his opponent, belittle his opponent, mock his opponent and then offer no clear and decisive examples of how the course of the Nation is better for having him in charge.  Indeed the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) to end hostilities in Iraq is a transition agreement to slowly withdraw Coalition forces while letting Iraqi Forces stand up.  It is a regularized turn-over and weaknesses in structure in the new Iraqi Forces can be found and examined, solutions proposed and such an agreement put on hold to allow structural weaknesses in the Iraqi government to be addressed.  After WWII this took nearly a decade in Japan, a bit shorter in Germany and in both instances the withdrawal was not a set date or year, but a set of conditions to be met for the capacity and trustworthiness of the new government to actually do its job with bunches of neophytes doing it.  Similarly, in Afghanistan, a time-table is not necessary, but an end goal of a capable Afghani set of forces that are accountable for their actions, have internal safeguards against corruption, and a means to address new problems as they arise are paramount to leaving a relatively stable government in a very rough neighborhood of Rock 3 from the star Sol.  In both cases President Obama is looking to score points (to get out of Iraq and set a time-table for Afghanistan that is rigid) and misses the concept of having an end set of accountable structures in place.  Indeed President Obama ran on getting a SOFA with Iraq and failed, utterly, to do so, which meant that any structural problems Iraqis would meet up with now must be handled on their own without any experienced outside resources to call upon.  In Afghanistan the rigid time-table that brooks no accommodation to problems, that allows for no shifting of schedule to meet unexpected weaknesses or unforeseen changes on the ground means that it is a hard, knife edge cut-off. 

Is that preferable to having forces in Germany, South Korea and other places for decades?  Perhaps, yes, but that case has not been made.  Nor has the case been made as to why continued presence in those Nations is actually to the interest of the US today.  A foreign policy would give hard and fast grounding to just how long the US can and should stay in a Nation post-war, and what the means and methodology for leaving actually are in broad overview.  Why leave hastily from Iraq after ticking off the locals and stay in Germany or South Korea?  What is the policy involved?  Why is it different in each locale?  And since the Korean war hasn't actually ended by treaty, just why is it that decades of presence without a final conclusion is acceptable?  President Barack Obama is incapable of stating his foreign policy goals for post-war systems of turn-over to local control of governments, and so you will never know why he does what he does and does not do what he does not do.

Gov. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has less he has to put forward but all that he must put forward is in the policy arena.  For a challenger this is the time to look confident, capable, relatively fluent with the course of external events, and to tie those events together and how he would approach them into a foreign policy.  In these areas it is best when you have a general foreign policy overview that can be clearly stated and advanced.  Owing to his business experience, Gov. Mitt Romney ties foreign policy back to economics, trade and National capacity to advance prosperity so that we can be the ones who decide when and how to act, not merely re-act to events.  Whilst all Nations are equal, we understand that they differ based on size, economy and moral outlook, so that even the mightiest of Nations can be made humble before a good example and that those seeking to tear down Nations will fear a commitment to liberty and freedom backed by the local population.  By constantly and consistently tying foreign policy strongest to the economic realm, Gov. Romney brought understanding to his outlooks on foreign policy to drive out the practical implementation of it in the way of plans.  Plans, therefore, follow policy and are in service to it, not the other way around, and this is a key understanding of the role of an executive (writ large and small), which is to set out policy, formulate plans and implement said plans within the limitations of power and what can be accomplished by policy.

Beyond that a challenger must offer up continuity with the current President, that the boat will not be turned over, that changes will occur over months or years, and that good works are applauded even when they must be adjusted to fit new conditions on the ground.  Differences can be offered in the way forward, but they are built-upon what is inherited, and wholesale changes cannot happen quickly if at all with foreign policy.  In short the job of the challenger is to make a foreign policy bridge continuity with the current President and yet offer enough differences in policy so that a changed path can be seen.  During the Cold War this was mostly absent as the bi-polar world view set in and things that the US would not have stood for pre-war (coddling tyrants and dictators who were anti-Soviet if not pro-freedom) and the expediency of keeping the continuity going was done in the light of global nuclear war if one wrong decision was made.  By 1980, however, the stark differences between a US in decline and a USSR going into multiple overseas excursions could be seen and the foreign policy of President Carter could be starkly contrasted to the benefit of a challenger who seemed to have a more coherent world-view.  In this first area of policy presentation and Executive readiness, Gov. Romney needed to only state the understanding of what has gone on during President Obama's term, that some changes will be made but not quickly and always done to a different viewpoint of economic liberty in search of increased security to other Nations and our own.  An explicit foreign policy would be nice, yes, but not required at this point in time.

Secondly in the foreign policy area is tenor and style, especially when substance lacks, but tenor and style cannot be divorced from history nor past events.  A smiling, laughing Joe Biden during discussion of what a nuclear armed Iran would mean was jarring, disconcerting and actually quite horrible to behold as this individual could become President with one heart-attack or fall down a flight of stairs or slipping in the bathtub by President Obama.  There is a solemnity to these topics that are the course of the Nation in the world that must be taken seriously, because not to do so could wind up with global consequences of unseen proportion with just one misstep.  Again the sitting Executive should have this area hands-down: being Head of State and Commander in Chief of the Armies and the Navies should give this realm of tenor and style a weight far different than other realms of discussion for the President's job.

Here President Obama did a disservice to himself by trying to tear down his opponent while not properly putting his service into context.  When criticizing Gov. Romney that we don't need a Navy the size of what it was in pre-WWI times, that we have better technology and that we no longer used horses and bayonets, the President in attempting to demean his opponent actually demonstrated that he is lacking a grasp of importance of the US Navy to our own shipping overseas.  Oversight by satellites and drones is not the same as having a warship on the spot to deal with shipping problems fostered by modern Pirates which are just terrorists taken to sea.  The only way to get a sniper to take care of a hostage situation at sea is to have a Navy that is widely deployed and can offer timely assets appropriate to the threat involved.  That means that not only nuclear aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines, but surface combatants and the capacity to field remotely operated or unmanned assets to be coordinated for local sea-going operations is required.  Indeed it is mandatory if a Nation is to have independent trade capacity and not depend upon other Nations for seagoing safety and support. 

Even worse, of course, is that the military still uses horses (particularly in Afghanistan where gasoline powered vehicles must be re-supplied with gasoline) and not only does it still use bayonets but also issues knives as a supplement.  The soldier has a three level threat system that has a specific order: the rifle for long range threats, the pistol for that stuff under 50 yards, and the knife or bayonet affixed to the rifle as form of pole-arm, for that stuff that is up-close and personal.  I would dare say we have MORE knives and bayonets amongst all the services issued to our troops than we did pre-WWI.  By trying to belittle and demean a mere civil opponent, the President demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of just how the soldier on the ground thinks and that there is no such thing as having too many knives or a bayonet mounted to the appropriate platform for it.  If we stress the knife more than the bayonet, it is due to those very technical circumstances the President brought up, not due to the lack of our soldiers needing a close-in weapon.  In attempting to 'score points' on an opponent, President Obama began removing them from his own column, instead.

Does the US Navy need more surface combatants, not just aircraft carrier battle groups and nuclear submarines?  One candidate does and the other does not, looking to replace physical capacity with remote surveillance and distant ships.  If China, say, decided to go after Taiwan and Hugo Chavez thought that seizure of Panama might help his tyrannical ends, then the US would be caught up in two Naval conflicts both requiring ships and support vessels, the full panoply of overhead assets and then be left wondering just who is guarding the Somali coast and the Straights of Hormuz.  If the Panama Canal becomes a US no-go zone and the South China Sea becomes the staging ground for an invasion outwards by China, the US is suddenly faced by having to see most of its shipping go through the Suez and Gibraltar.  Anything that put those at risk would be a crippling blow to the US and to the global economy if the US requirement for free passage cannot be asserted by military power during conflicts in which our foes were hitting at vital trade lines.

Today the modern nuclear ship force cannot be made into a 'Ghost Fleet' as the diesel ships had done to them.  When the nuclear reactor of these vessels is no longer enough to operate it and must be removed, then the entire ship is broken up to get at the reactor itself.  A few of these vessels that are from the first generation of vessels are nearing that point in time, and the end of their sustainment life is coming.  While replacements are being constructed (and some are in service) the idea that nuclear only fleet can do the task of safeguarding US commerce overseas is misguided and misapplied.  While we can make more mighty vessels (like the proposed and shelved DDX platform) the capacity to fine-tune response with firepower that is small, exacting and precise requires a human system at sea.  Be it for stop and search of cargo vessels for war materiel contraband or using a sniper to remove a few terrorists, these things cannot be done well (and sometimes not at all) by large vessels but only by small ones.  Littoral, near coastal, coastal and deep marine requirements all have their own necessities so that the modern US Navy is still covering areas from Brown Water to Blue Water, although less with gunboats and more with delivery systems for both arms and personnel, as well as lethal missiles, so that the role remains the same, the actual spatial area has remained the same or increased, and human capacity to deal with individual situations has to meet the new inputs from all these systems.  Technology has changed, yes, but the nature of the threat is so widely distributed that it cannot be dealt with by our current force mix.  This does not mean more of bigger and badder, but, like with GPS equipped munitions, often smaller, more accurate and less lethal delivered with precision.  It is very possible that a modern version of the WWII Jeep Carrier, that is a small aircraft carrier, light carrier or escort carrier, might become a platform for UAV/UCAVs or for ROVs or for VTOL systems all mixed together on one vessel.  Smaller and more versatile to cover a larger role and relieve stress off the larger battle groups means they can serve as a massive response to situations gone out of control, with the smaller forces serving to deal with localized threats from Pirates and threats that a large battle group just isn't made for.

That is the sort of analysis a Commander in Chief and Head of State must perform so as to clearly state just what the role, size and needs of our military are and should be in the future, not passing off what we have as 'good enough' just because it is relatively modern.  The people doing the threatening are using speed boats, semi-submersibles, cheap drones, and boarding ships with AK-47s, which is an entirely different threat matrix than dealing with Russia or China, say.  Yet the US Navy is required to deal with ALL OF IT.  Does a smaller navy relying on heavier vessels sound 'modern' at all in this context?  If so, then President Obama needs to make the case for that, which he did not do.

The Third major area, and the one that consumed the most time, was economics, but this concentrated more on domestic situations than our foreign trade.  Trade amongst Nations and how our Nation participates in such trade is a thing that the President gets much oversight and needs to foster agreement in the Senate to put trade agreements forward.  In this realm Gov. Romney performed well, as he put forward a clear vision of trade between the US and S. American Nations that would seek to build up their economic capacity and liberalize their trade, which would bolster them and the US, both.  Trade is something that can be 'win-win' for both sides when it is mutual and beneficial to both to have such trade.  This has been stated clearly as far back as 1776 by Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations, and continues to be true to this very day.  Gov. Romney later tied this to the expansion of small business in the US to participate vigorously in foreign trade and to set an example by doing so.  One of the greatest differences between President Obama and Gov. Romney is in this realm and President Obama was unprepared to offer up ideas on expanding trade in S. America at all, and only on an extremely limited basis in Asia, while Gov. Romney put forward that better trade relations lessen tensions between Nations and requires less military worries than poor or lacking trade relations.  On the flip side trade is to be between Nations that respect the sovereignty of other Nations and do not export Piracy in the form of terrorism to advance National goals by terrorizing the innocent.

In the non-military part of dealing with Iran, for example, Gov. Romney deployed something close to the unused but thoroughly Constitutional and tested framework of laws regarding Piracy in the US Code which I have handled multiple times, but is most clearly seen by me in this post.  A President gets wide latitude in dealing with Piracy as it is a threat not just to the US but to the system of Nation States, and those performing it are a threat to all mankind.  Gov. Romney put forward that more than just sanctions, and yet far less than war, can be done to the Iranian government by going after those that trade with them, and bringing those companies to heel via vigorous prosecution of them.  This requires that a President is fluent in the treaties the US has with various flag Nations and their vessels, and then be able to cite where their activities are contrary to their treaty agreements in regards to safeguarding trade and not trading with rogue Nations.  By dovetailing both trade and accountability for trade, Gov. Romney put forward a framework far deeper than anything President Obama has ever stated in this realm.  It is well and good of talking about treaties, but they are contracts between Nations and other Nations must be held accountable to what they have agreed to in this process.  In this area of foreign policy, the one that ties Nations together most intimately via trade, the President must be not only fluent but have a coherent outlook on it.  By having no response in general, and by not being able to deploy anything constructive to his foreign policy, President Obama lost not just stylistically (by trying to import that Gov. Romney is a warmonger) but also in substance by not even understanding the scope and depth of this Presidential suite of powers.

Now to the bits and pieces.

One of the stunning bits I learned from President Obama was just how unready he was for the Presidency.  I'm using the CNN transcript for this:

OBAMA: Governor - here - here's - here's one thing...


OBAMA: ...here's one thing I've learned as commander in chief.


SCHIEFFER: Let him answer...

OBAMA: You've got to be clear, both to our allies and our enemies, about where you stand and what you mean. You just gave a speech a few weeks ago in which you said we should still have troops in Iraq. That is not a recipe for making sure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities and meeting the challenges of the Middle East.

Now I thought that this was something that ANYONE who ran for President would know right up-front, at the start and not have to do OJT for it.  This is something embedded in the American culture: the US President is clear, precise and tells you just what he expects so as not to befuddle our allies and embolden our enemies.  No one, and I do mean no one, needs to learn this as it as a thoroughly ingrained expectation of the office and has been since President Washington who set the standard for it.

The nation building trope from President Obama is a tired talking point:

But what I think the American people recognize is after a decade of war it's time to do some nation building here at home. And what we can now do is free up some resources, to, for example, put Americans back to work, especially our veterans, rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools, making sure that, you know, our veterans are getting the care that they need when it comes to post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, making sure that the certifications that they need for good jobs of the future are in place.

We, as a Nation, do nation building abroad with Nations that have lost at war with us where the civil population is seen as innocent actors to a malignant government.  Are we war torn at home?  And even if we are, the role of the government is to stand aside and let the American People rebuild the Nation to our desires, not to the ones set out by our government.  Government is to follow the people, not lead the people in this.  Plus aren't the roads and bridges supposed to be FIXED by now due to the awesome power of the STIMULUS?  If not, why aren't they?  And who is being prosecuted for screwing this up so badly?

If the President wishes for the VA to act better, he could get on their case about processing claims in a timely fashion and not allow the backlogs to grow and the time to get something done to expand.

The only way that we can 'free up some resources' is by having government not taking them from the people to run the wars, and that happens once the war funding ends.  The money taken to run the wars is not money normally due to the federal government, and acting as if it IS then becomes an desire to keep spending levels at war time levels but without war time needs.  If America needs to be rebuilt, then it best happens at the local level which is the hardest pressed by war funding.  If the President wishes for things to get better, all he needs to do is stop the spending and not ask for higher taxes to keep spending at war time levels.

A scary-smart thing from Gov. Romney is his knowledge of Pakistan, which is something that President Obama (like South/Latin America) couldn't address properly:

ROMNEY: No, it's not time to divorce a nation on Earth that has 100 nuclear weapons and is on the way to double that at some point, a nation that has serious threats from terrorist groups within its nation, as I indicated before, the Taliban, Haqqani Network.

It's a nation that's not like - like others and it does not have a civilian leadership that is calling the shots there. You have the ISI, their intelligence organization, is probably the most powerful of the - of three branches there. Then you have the military and then you have the civilian government.

This is a nation, which, if it falls apart, if it - if it becomes a failed state, there are nuclear weapons there and you've got - you've got terrorists there who could grab their - their hands onto those nuclear weapons.

ROMNEY: This is - this is an important part of the world for us. Pakistan is - is technically an ally, and they're not acting very much like an ally right now. But we have some work to do. And I - I don't blame the administration for the fact that the relationship with Pakistan is strained. We - we had to go into Pakistan. We had to go in there to get Osama bin Laden. That was the right thing to do. And - and that upset them, but obviously there was a great deal of anger even before that. But we're going to have to work with the - with the people in Pakistan to try and help them move to a more responsible course than the one that they're on. And it's important for them. It's important for the nuclear weapons.

It's important for the success of Afghanistan. Because inside Pakistan, you have a - a large group of Pashtun that are - that are Taliban. They're going to come rushing back in to Afghanistan when we go. And that's one of the reasons the Afghan Security Forces have so much work to do to be able to fight against that. But it's important for us to recognize that we can't just walk away from Pakistan. But we do need to make sure that as we - as we send support for them, that this is tied to them making progress on - on matters that would lead them to becoming a civil society.

If there was a Leftist critique of Afghanistan post-USSR, it was that the US just cut and run from it, to leave the Islamists to fight for control of the place.  Remember that the Taliban were not all that nice towards women, not allowing them to go to school and even executing those who disagreed with the regime publicly in a soccer stadium.  That criticism of not staying behind to help get a better result in Afghanistan was harped upon by the Left, until just after 9/11, where it became the 'vital war' and is now just seen as a place to run away from and Pakistan with it.  Thus repeating the same mistake with Afghanistan they decried, but with a nuclear armed State.

Even though there was material that Gov. Romney 'left on the table' that he could have attacked President Obama with, there was plenty of material he also left on the table that President Obama couldn't address in trade, foreign relations, and military size and scope.  Not every attack needs to be answered in a foreign policy forum, and one can choose to leave attack points aside while putting out statements for which an opponent has no answer.

To try and pick a 'winner' on 'points' for this realm of information is, perhaps, misguided: it isn't about points but continuity of the Nation overseas and putting a clearly defined set of goals in place that people can understand.

Neither candidate did that well, to be sure, but a President should be able to do it fluently, easily and even disdain from attacking his opponent in the one area where continuity is paramount no matter how deep the disagreements.  President Obama would have been well served by having the cool, aloof Obama show up tonight, the one who kept to himself and just played it straight without attacking Gov. Romney.

In this series of debates it is clear that one candidate has a job, but doesn't really know how to interview for it a second time, while the other has interviewed for a few such positions in the past and understands what the role of an executive is.  

That set of characteristics of what makes an executive on small and on large was demonstrated during this 'debate'.  Experience does matter and what you have to learn also matters, as well, and the question of who is better prepared to learn is left up to the individual to decide.  Because you are the one who receives the interview material and must make the hiring decision.  Even if you are outvoted, you must make the best choice of who is to be an executive that will govern in the way you think is more clearly suited to not just yourself but to the Nation as a whole.

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