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Clicking This Will Make You Stupider

The 10 worst foreign policy campaign ads of 2012.

We know -- it's late October, and you're sick and tired of campaign advertising. But the 2012 election is entering its final weeks, and that means over-the-top political messaging is in full bloom. This week, for example, Citizens Against Government Waste and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation are re-airing a famous 2010 ad in which a Chinese professor lectures his students in 2030 about how bailouts, Obamacare, and the deficit condemned the once-great United States to the ash heap of history. Meanwhile, on the fringes of the national conversation, the peacenik Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson came out with an ad featuring what looks to be a Predator drone and the lines, "Right now in Iran a lot of little kids are about to die." (Never mind that no one is actually suggesting the United States is conducting drone strikes in Iran.)

Sure, international affairs hasn't featured as prominently as economic issues in presidential and congressional campaign spots this year. But when foreign policy has entered the ad wars, candidates and their support groups have often played up the fear-mongering and played down the facts. Here are some of the most bizarre, egregious, and entertaining examples.

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First there was Rick Santorum's Obamaville ad, which took viewers on a tour of a dystopian future America menaced by a nuclear Iran (in what some interpreted as a subliminal message, President Obama appears for a split second on a television screen flashing images of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad). Now Newt Gingrich's Super PAC, Winning Our Future, is out with an ad that paints an even more dire picture if Obama wins reelection. With the help of soaring music and apocalyptic images, we're told that by 2016 the Middle East will burst into flames, Iran will go nuclear, and gas will be rationed. Never mind that four years into Obama's presidency, the world has yet to end. He'll have more flexibility in a second term, people.


Conventional wisdom says that studying abroad in Europe will make you a radical, U.N.-loving environmentalist, but what fewer people know is that it's also associated with rowdy, ice-luge Jägermeister shots and corn-dog "triple doubling." Luckily, the South Dakota GOP has put together a television ad explaining how this happened to Democratic congressional candidate Matt Varilek. While he was off accumulating graduate degrees at Glasgow and Cambridge -- that bastion of subversive radicalism that produced Stanley Baldwin and Prince Charles -- Republican candidate Kristi Noem was at home raising a family on her South Dakota farm and serving "her friends and neighbors" in the state legislature. The choice for voters on Nov. 6: "radical ideas" or "South Dakota common sense" (Varilek is already fundraising off the ad).


Playing off of Obama's call for economic patriotism, the labor-backed Super PAC Workers' Voice released an ad and accompanying website this week that accuses Mitt Romney of being an "economic traitor." In the spot, which seizes on the controversy surrounding Bain Capital's decision to outsource jobs at a company called Sensata Technologies to China, a Sensata employee explains that when Chinese executives visited his plant in Illinois, Bain ordered the staff to take down the American flag. (Obama campaign ads have also made questionable claims about Romney shipping jobs to China through Bain.) Romney does have holdings in Sensata, but Bain bought the company in 2006, four years after the GOP candidate left Bain Capital. That's some shaky ground on which to build the case that Romney is an economic Benedict Arnold.   


Rep. Allen West (R-FL) is no stranger to controversy. So perhaps it's not surprising that the retired lieutenant colonel, who once called Obama supporters a "threat to the gene pool," has released one of the most provocative campaign ads of the election season. Filmed in the style of CSI Miami, the spot casts the freshman congressman as a war hero readying for battle as his opponent, Patrick Murphy, drunkenly assaults a police officer in South Beach and is taken into custody. "Two men. A country in crisis," the narrator says ominously in closing. "You decide." The ad wins extra points for its liberal use of Murphy's mug shot and brazen portrayal of West's military career, which ended in ignominy after he pled guilty to assaulting a detainee during an investigation in Iraq. West was stripped of his command and forced to pay a $5,000 fine.


Romney's favored line about Obama's supposed "apology tour" makes a comeback in this ad, despite having been thoroughly debunked by an army (though not a shrunken navy) of fact-checkers, including PolitiFact,, and the Washington Post, which awarded the claim four "Pinocchios." The "apology tour" first entered the political vernacular when Karl Rove wrote about the president's "international confession tour" in the Wall Street Journal back in 2009. But even Rove's best efforts to slice and dice Obama's speeches that spring did not yield the word "apology" -- or even a convincing case for the president's contrition about America's past. But here, again, we have Romney accusing Obama of "going on an apology tour of going to various nations and criticizing America." Not only that, the ad, which was released by the Romney-Ryan campaign after the last debate, sneakily suggests the "apology tour" occurred in the Middle East, where the president "flew to Egypt and to Saudi Arabia and to Turkey and Iraq. And, by the way...skipped Israel." The only problem is that the tour Rove analyzed -- on which Obama never apologized -- stopped in Paris, London, and Prague.


The average American believes the federal government forks over roughly a quarter of its annual budget to other countries in the form of foreign aid. In poll after poll, Americans say that Washington's global welfare system costs more than the Pentagon and ought to be trimmed back -- to something closer to 10 percent of the budget. (Foreign aid actually makes up about 1 percent of federal spending, but that doesn't make it any less lethal on the campaign trail.) This scathing attack by Rep. Rand Paul's political action committee on Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) is betting that voters in the Mountain State are at least as misinformed as the average American. "While our debt climbs higher and our roads and bridges crumble, Joe Manchin works with Barack Obama to send billions of our taxpayer dollars to countries where radicals storm our embassies, burn our flag, and kill our diplomats," the narrator intones. First on the chopping block, according to Rand PAC, should be assistance to Egypt, Libya, and Pakistan. Of course, the ad leaves unexplored what would happen if the nuclear-armed and al Qaeda-infested demographic time bomb that is Pakistan went bankrupt or if the Egyptian military decided it wanted to dissolve the country's peace treaty with Israel -- something 77 percent of Egyptians supported in a recent poll.


Ahead of the foreign-policy debate on Monday, the Obama campaign released an ad suggesting that Romney had a five-point plan for foreign policy as well: fudge facts, alienate allies, admit inexperience, consult neocons, and misidentify enemies. It's not as misleading as some of the other ads on this list, but it is short on context (yes, Romney said that America's "number one geopolitical foe" was Russia, but he labeled Iran the "greatest threat that the world faces" in the same interview). The ad also pokes fun of Romney for speaking French while promoting the Salt Lake City Olympics -- an attack straight out of the Newt Gingrich playbook.


In September, shortly after the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the conservative group Let Freedom Ring released a highly deceptive ad denouncing Obama for inviting Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood to the White House and sending Cairo $1.5 billion in foreign aid. (A more recent ad by the group Secure America Now condemns the administration for investing millions in Egypt rather than U.S. schools.) The ad begins by showing a fiery speaker pledging to establish a capital in Jerusalem at what the narrator describes as a "Muslim Brotherhood rally for their new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy." But what the narrator doesn't mention is that the speaker is the Egyptian cleric Safwat Higazi, not Morsy. To support the claim that the new Egyptian leader wants to revive relations with Tehran, the ad references a Reuters report on an interview with an Iranian news agency that Morsy denies giving. And not only does the narrator make the contentious claim that Iran is "building nuclear weapons," but she cites a line from a 1991 memorandum for the Brotherhood's North American wing to prove that the group's "top leaders" are interested in "taking over America."


Obama may have taken a bit of right-wing heat for criticizing Romney's Big Bird comments on the campaign trail and in a campaign spot, but the Super PAC American Bridge 21st Century wins the award for the most gratuitous use of Big Bird in an anti-Romney ad. After criticizing the Republican candidate for stashing his money away in Switzerland and in the Cayman Islands, the ad inexplicably cuts to Romney's remarks about cutting funding to PBS as what appears to be an anvil smashes Big Bird, sending yellow feathers flying everywhere. The unanswered question, of course, is what happens to Mr. Snuffleupagus if Big Bird's not around?


Where to begin? This ad, released by the super PACs Secure America Now and RightChange, takes the Obama administration to task for not recognizing more quickly that al Qaeda was behind the deadly consular attack in Benghazi on September 11. To identify the perpetrator, the narrator chastises, the president "only needed to look at the al Qaeda flag desecrating our ground." On screen, a black flag can be seen waving amid billowing smoke -- except the footage was clearly taken at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, some 650 miles away. Elsewhere, the ad features a second "al Qaeda" flag -- actually a similar flag that is common among Salafis throughout the region -- again implying that it was located in Benghazi. Upon closer examination, however, it's the flag that soccer hooligans hoisted over the U.S. Embassy in Cairo -- hardly the damning Libya evidence the ad's makers are suggesting. The ad's final message: "Just tell me the truth. What happened?" We might ask the producers the same thing.

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Silent Treatment

The biggest global issues that weren't discussed at the debates.


Republican nominee Mitt Romney often uses Europe's fiscal woes as a cautionary tale. In the third presidential debate, in Boca Raton, he twice mentioned that out-of-control spending has the United States "headed to the road to Greece," but you would think from listening to the debates that Europe's crisis has no impact on the United States.

As both candidates know, in an increasingly interconnected financial system, U.S. markets rise and fall on the news from Brussels, and the crisis in Europe has been a drag on America's own economic recovery. Obama's Treasury Department has been putting pressure on Germany to support stimulus packages and move away from its previous commitment to austerity, though the United States has been unwilling to put its own money on the table. German Chancellor Angela Merkel nevertheless appears to have gotten the message, though perhaps only because she now sees the crisis's flames beginning to lick around the edges of her own country.

Would Romney take a different approach? Does either candidate have a contingency plan for the potential economic impact of a eurozone breakup? Do either have thoughts about how the crisis is reshaping the balance of power in the European Union or forcing member states to reduce defense budgets? From the debates, it's not quite clear.

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Voters in 50 years, when the effects of rising sea levels and hotter global temperatures are more acutely felt, will likely find it downright bizarre that the two candidates for the presidency in 2012 managed to debate for a total of 4 ½ hours without ever saying the words "climate change" or "global warming." It was the first time the topic had not been discussed in the last 24 years of presidential debates. (Candy Crowley, moderator of the second debate, later told "all you climate people" that she had wanted to include a question on the topic but ran out of time; Bob Schieffer, who moderated the third and final debate, said, "I had questions about climate change to talk about," but let the candidates ramble on about teachers and auto bailouts instead.)

Romney, who supported a cap-and-trade plan as governor of Massachusetts, has lately been hesitant even to admit that humans cause climate change. Obama, whose 2008 pledge to "slow the rise of the oceans" has become a Republican laugh line, has frustrated environmentalists with the administration's lack of action on the issue.

Yes, there was some talk of investments in clean energy in the debates, but paeans to the coal industry were a lot more prevalent. Blogger David Roberts probably spoke for many environmentalists when he tweeted during the second debate, "from a clean-energy/climate perspective, that debate was a f'ing horror show. We are all doomed."

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Except for a brief mention by Romney of the "Fast and Furious" scandal during a discussion of gun violence, there was no discussion in the debates of U.S. drug policy -- a topic with serious domestic and international implications.

The United States is spending around $40 billion per year on the war on drugs while leading the world in illegal drug use. Money spent on counternarcotics efforts in Latin America has done little to either control violence or slow the flow of drugs into the United States, and leaders in the region are talking more seriously than ever about plans to decriminalize drug use. The lack of discussion of Mexico's drug violence -- which has killed nearly 50,000 people since 2006 -- seems particularly egregious after the killing of a U.S. border patrol agent this week.

Obama tends to laugh off questions on marijuana laws, but thanks in large part to drug arrests, the U.S. prison population dwarfs every other country on the planet, including China, and 40 percent of drug arrests in the United States are for simple marijuana possession -- a crime the president himself was once known to dabble in with no apparent ill-effects. Legalization initiatives are on the ballots in three states this year. Washington's stands a good chance of passing. But the debates gave no indication of how either candidate would respond as president.



Romney did mention that Israeli and Palestinian leaders "haven't had talks in two years" in the final debate, but for all the discussion of the state of U.S.-Israeli relations, the debates would still give the impression that Iran's nuclear program is the only pressing issue facing the Jewish state. Obama was not pressed to defend his administration's faltering efforts to restart talks between the two sides, and Romney was not challenged to define how he would approach the problem differently, or defend the controversial claim he made in the now-infamous "47 percent" video that "the Palestinians have no interest whatsoever in establishing peace."

Both candidates may be taking their cues from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in his international speeches has tended to emphasize the Iran issue over the Palestinian question. But while both U.S. candidates claim -- in principle -- to support a two-state solution, the debates didn't offer much hope that they would do anything to make it a reality.



Particularly on foreign policy, the differences between the two candidates are often more a matter of nuance and emphasis than policy. But when it comes to the treatment of terrorism suspects, the differences are pretty clear -- making it all the more strange that Schieffer didn't bring it up.

Obama unexpectedly raised the topic of his administration's failure to close the detention center at Guantánamo Bay in an interview with Jon Stewart last week, "I still want to close Guantánamo. We haven't been able to get that through Congress." Romney famously promised to "double Guantánamo" in 2007. While he's quieter about the issue in this election, he presumably still favors keeping the detention center open.

There's also a stark contrast on the issue of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Obama banned practices not included in the Army Field Manual as one of his first acts as president and has stuck with that policy even as he's moved in a more hawkish direction on the use of drones and indefinite detention. Romney's campaign, meanwhile, has suggested that he will rescind the order, and the governor has vowed to use "enhanced interrogation techniques which go beyond those that are in the military handbook right now." Romney hasn't specified what techniques he means, and there was no discussion of detainees in any of the debates.

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If the candidates had prepared for the debate by learning the name of the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan, they didn't get a chance to show it off. Thanks to Romney, U.S. trade policy in Latin America and the security crisis in Mali made brief appearances in the final debate, but the foreign-policy discussion in this election has still mostly been a Mideast policy debate, with occasional timeouts for China-bashing. The lone mention of Asia's other rising power -- India -- was as a competitor for jobs. Other than terrorism in Mali, the United States apparently has no interests worth discussing on the continent of Africa, outside of the coastal Arab states. North Korea was mentioned once by Romney, but not discussed in detail. Japan was mentioned only by Schieffer - and only then during a question about Israel.

So much for that pivot.