Presidential candidates usually frame national security in terms of foreign policy – relations between nations, including their treaties, military agreements, arms sales, foreign aid and military action. But if a President’s most important job is to protect the welfare of his nation’s citizens, then this foreign policy frame is actually a narrow, militaristic, euphemistic way of avoiding talking about our real need for national security.
The greatest threats to our nation and our people are the growing wealth inequity that stifles economic growth and pushes millions into poverty; our dependence on energy sources that ignite wars and pollute the planet; our lack of universal health care; and a failure to provide educational opportunity for millions of children stuck in low-performing schools.
In short, national security is about protecting our nation by investing in human capital and providing for the health and education of our citizens.
Last night, the presidential candidates were asked and answered the expected questions about our military and diplomatic policy toward Israel, the entire Middle East region, the nuclear capabilities of Iran, our growing partnership – and adversarial relationship – with China, defeating terrorists, and who would be the most decisive and thoughtful Commander-in Chief.
Nearly absent from this debate were the horrifying consequences of a narrow and militarized definition of national security. “Collateral damage,” a term bandied about among defense analysts, is just another way of saying that drones, which both candidates supported, have killed women and children and destroyed families, clans and villages thousands of miles from home.
And then the collateral damage follows our soldiers home. More of them commit suicide than are killed in combat. They are plagued by memories that turn them into alcoholics and addicts. With brain traumas rampant, spouses no longer have a healthy husband or wife, and their children no longer have a functional parent. Two million children of recent veterans have suffered from elevated levels of depression and learning problems. This collateral damage not only harms those who fight our resource wars, but also scars the women and men who must care for the injured and the children whose lives have been irreversibly transformed.
And yet, during this entire debate on foreign policy we heard relatively little about the impact of our militarized foreign policy on people’s lives.
Nor did any candidate expose the many lies that led us to invade Iraq, which have caused so many of these family traumas. Barack Obama has boasted that his administration killed Osama Bin Laden, finally extricated us from Iraq, and has convincingly expressed his concern for military families. Neither candidate, however, conceded that George W. Bush lied to the American people about Iraq, a prolonged war that has caused the ripples of pain and trauma that will go on for decades.
Mitt Romney tried hard to prove he’s rougher and tougher than Obama, who dared to use the “soft” word of “diplomacy” at the United Nations and would talk with Iran, before bombing it. But in fact, he gradually softened his stance and mostly agreed with all the President’s policies. He truly didn’t want tomorrow’s papers to portray him as a Republican war mongerer. Much clearer was his goal to protect the wealthiest players in the global economy, as well as the so-called “job creators” in the United States, from paying too much taxes.
What would a real national security look like? This debate never really took place. For starters, we would protect human rights and civil liberties, here and abroad. We would not have warrantless electronic surveillance. Nor would we allow the National Defense Authorization Act that permits the indefinite detention of terrorist suspects—even American citizens--without trial. This is a violation of our constitution and an assault on democracy. The gradual evisceration of our civil liberties makes America less safe, not more secure. In the name of a military national security, we have given up some of our most precious rights and liberties.
Real national security means education for our children; jobs, homes and healthcare for all our citizens; protecting the health of the planet and leaving a democratic society for our grandchildren.
To his credit, the President repeatedly talked about “nation building” at home, instead of intervening in other countries’ political affairs. He praised negotiations and sanctions that had avoided wars, and stressed the urgent need to build the America’s economy. If we want to lead, he said, we need to set an example. We stood up for the democratic movements in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt and demonstrated that we believe in democratic principles. He also reminded viewers – repeatedly – that under his administration, American foreign policy views the education of women as the path to peace and prosperity. Without women’s rights, he emphasized, economic development was impossible in developing nations. (Everyone has finally figured out that women’s votes will decide the election.)
Obama described America’s need for “nation building” in terms of retraining workers, elevating educational standards, and improving math and science so that American students can build 21st century energy sources and advanced manufacturing. One of his foreign policy goals was that of creating a model of democracy and decency for the rest of the world. To lead, he said, we must set an example.
And does the rest of the world agree with Obama that we have improved America's credibility in the world?
Yes and no.
When the United States supported Libya, some people may have felt that the United States is finished with paying dictators for their resources.
But when a crackpot made a video vilifying the Islamic religion, the immediate fiery explosion of anti-Americanism tells us something that was never debated tonight. America is admired for many of its ideals and innovations, but it takes just one ugly insult for tens of thousands of people to express their true feelings about America’s attempt to control their resources and dominate their region.
In short, our foreign policy has failed miserably. Obama’s idea of “nation building” within the United States is far more promising that the usual discussion of military policy. National security should be about strengthening our democracy and creating an example that billions of people around the world would like to emulate. Obama genuinely seemed to understand that.
This is the final article in Ruth Rosen's series of articles for openDemocracy 50.50 on the 2012 US Presidential candidate debates. Click here to read the series
Get our weekly email