Campaign 2012: Living with disappointment

After watching the latest U.S. presidential debate, I still think that few minds were changed and that the race is too close to call. The 5% or so of the electorate that hasn’t made up its mind is less important than the Electoral College and whose partisans turn out to vote. I’ve made no secret of my political preferences here and on various social media. However, I keep hoping that both parties will do better.

Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama point fingers
Presidential candidates point fingers

Following the lead of Vice President Joe Biden in his debate with Rep. Paul Ryan, President Barack Obama was much more forceful in his arguments in the second debate. I still think that he could have defended the liberal and Democrat points of view even more strongly.

I would have liked Obama to clearly and unapologetically state the need for government leadership in protecting health care, the environment, and civil rights. Sure, both candidates paid lip service to the importance of education, veterans, and care for the elderly, but neither proposed significant reforms beyond alternative payment schemes. Neither candidate called for sacrifice, patience, or experimentation in dealing with a recession that’s beyond the president’s direct control.

Instead of bickering over dubious statistics, sticking to their campaign platforms rather than directly address questions, and wrestling over oratorical procedure, the candidates could have laid out their visions for the next four years — not the past four or more, nor some nebulous nirvana a decade from now, when neither would be in office.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also missed opportunities to lay out a compelling set of Republican alternatives. Fiscal conservatives want to cut taxes, government regulations, and federal and trade deficits — all worthy goals — but they haven’t really explained how they’d make up the revenue or continue to properly safeguard the public good. If liberals shouldn’t pick winners and losers in industry, neither should conservatives.

Social conservatives want to restrict abortion, promote individual initiative and responsibility, and eliminate programs they don’t like, but many Americans are more concerned with jobs and the social safety net. I’m in favor of renewing the assault weapons ban, continuing to reform health care, and allowing anyone to be married, regardless of race, creed, or sexual preference. The so-called culture wars have wasted as much energy as the well-intentioned but misguided and costly wars on poverty and drugs.

On foreign policy, where I can claim more expertise than in economics, the U.S. should devise a better strategy for the current and evolving state of global affairs. Both Democrats and Republicans have coddled dictators, misjudged security threats, and needlessly rattled sabers.

Why is it that the U.S., which spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined and is the No. 1 arms seller, has lost its credibility as a peacemaker? How can we help break the nuclear standoff between Israel and Iran without escalation? How can we encourage democracy without getting embroiled in civil wars in Libya and Syria, continue to engage European and Asian allies amid their own economic turmoil, and contain the threat posed by states such as North Korea?

There are no easy answers, but bad-mouthing our creditor, commercial supplier, and geopolitical rival China doesn’t strike me as particularly productive. We missed opportunities to encourage reform and stability in Eastern Europe after the Cold War, and I believe we’re missing our window of influence on the emerging Asian century.

Both Obama and Romney agree on the need to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, despite the deplorable acts of the Taliban there and in Pakistan. I hope they’ll do more than mention human rights (if at all) in their final debate. Both men say they want the U.S. to become self-reliant for its energy needs, even if they differ on the means and on the need for global standards and environmental protection.

I hope my fellow citizens will try to be informed and get out and vote. Our neighbors, allies, and foes will all be watching. We may have stumbled, but the U.S. still has considerable natural and human resources, traditions of idealism and innovation, and the ability to serve as a positive example of representative democracy. I hope we choose wisely!

Thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in North Africa and the Middle East

Site of current conflicts
North Africa and the Middle East

While I remain hopeful about the long-term prospects for democracy worldwide, I’m less sanguine about U.S. foreign policy, regardless of the political party in charge. The U.S. government has a track record of repeatedly betting on the wrong horse, allowing the personal rapport between leaders to overwhelm common sense. We also tend to value military spending over human rights rhetoric and resort to heavy-handed economic or military measures when we don’t like a revolution’s outcome.

Cyberutopians have hailed the role of cell phones, the Internet, and social media in the latest round of populist uprisings. Global telecommunications have certainly made it easier for groups of people to organize, but we shouldn’t underestimate the ability of regimes from Havana and Beijing to Tehran and Pyongyang to censor news media, ruthlessly crush domestic protests while rallying their own supporters, and fend off international disapproval.

Focusing on North Africa and the Middle East, I think that Egypt may be the exception rather than the rule. I’m glad that Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak with a minimum of violence. He was a client of U.S. military largesse and a sponsor of d├ętente with Israel. But Mubarak was not loved in his country, which has long been an important regional power with an educated middle class (preconditions for Western-style democracy and capitalism).

The lack of influence by religious radicals in Egypt’s uprising shows that most Muslims want security, prosperity, and freedom, just like people of other faiths and ethnicities. On the other hand, we have yet to see whether recent elections will lead to positive change or if Egypt’s military will merely swap one strongman for another.

The so-called First World’s addiction to apparently cheap energy has led to our tacit support of nondemocratic Saudi Arabia over the protestors in Bahrain, the difficult occupation of Iraq, and halfhearted support of reform in Yemen and Syria. Israel is the most Westernized of the nations in the region, but it is still struggling with its borders, settlements, and Palestinian neighbors, many of whom are radicalized.

As for our involvement in Libya’s civil war, I’m no fan of Mr. Khadafy, but I’m not sure that the U.S. and U.N. will be able to oust to oust him just as his forces were advancing on rebels. As usual, President Obama is in a no-win situation — our European allies want to intervene in Libya’s civil war, but Congress and the American people are reluctant to intervene, even for humanitarian reasons.

I understand Obama’s hesitation, but I hope that the U.S. can encourage democratic movements, discourage armed conflict and tribalism/fundamentalism, and continue to work with our allies. In an ideal world, we’d stop providing billions of dollars in weapons to the region, and disputed territories would be disarmed and made U.N. protectorates. Of course, if there were easy answers to the region’s socioeconomic, ethnic/religious, and political problems, someone would have found them by now. What do you think we should do?

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