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Jerks vs. Waterboarders

The best reason to pick Obama over Romney.

Last week, I had some uncomplimentary things to say about President Barack Obama's foreign policy record. To avoid being drawn and quartered by my frenemies (a neologism I once despised but am beginning to find rather useful), I promised to devote this week's column to Saying Nice Things about President Obama, and Critical Things about Mitt Romney's foreign policy proposals.

Let's get the nice things out of the way first. Obama is smart, good-looking, and, goddammit, people like him. He did a super job in the third debate: he was on top of his facts, both the true facts and the slightly less true facts. (Have you ever played the game "Three Truths and a Lie," in which everyone is required to say three true things about themselves and one false thing, and the other players must try to identify the falsehood? Political debates operate according to similar rules, but the truth-to-lie ratio must be lower, and partial truths are permitted in addition to truths and lies. This makes the game more challenging and enjoyable for all.)

Right, okay. So: Obama was on top of the facts, the factoids, and the purely factitious. He appeared relaxed without being somnolent. He got in a couple of funny lines, though the quip about the bayonets and horses was somewhat unkind to equines. (They also serve who only stand and neigh!) Clearly he took a calculated risk on that one, but since horses don't vote, it should work out okay.

During Monday night's debate, Obama also rightly took credit for some real accomplishments: he ended the Iraq War without undue fuss and bother, he killed Osama bin Laden with his bare hands, and he helped the Libyans get rid of Qaddafi (who was done in with a bayonet, it turns out!). On the diplomatic front, he managed to get a bunch of leaders who were very annoyed at the United States to be substantially less annoyed, he got the Russians to sign the New START treaty (he even managed to get the Senate to ratify it), and he refrained from involving the nation in any new ground wars.

The Obama administration has had other significant foreign policy accomplishments, too -- ones that went unmentioned during the debate because, well, no one cares. Except me! I care. So I'm very glad that the president's early executive orders prohibited torture, extraordinary rendition, and the use of CIA "black sites" for holding terror suspects, and I'm glad that his administration has at least made an effort to ensure that U.S. actions can be justified under international law. The administration has thawed out once ice cold relations with the International Criminal Court and rejoined the U.N. Human Rights Council, recognizing that most of the time engagement -- even with imperfect institutions -- is more effective than isolation.

True, Syria's a tragedy, Pakistan continues to simmer, Afghanistan does not appear destined for "beacon of democracy" status, and we don't know what to do about Iran or China. And true, there's not much evidence of strategic vision in Obama's foreign policy. But overall, Obama has had some genuine successes in the foreign policy domain and has managed to steer clear of any major catastrophes. After eight years of George W. Bush, I'll take what I can get.

That's enough niceness for now. Let's turn to Mitt Romney.

Last week, I was eagerly looking forward to the final debate, which I figured would give me plenty of opportunities to be critical of Romney. But that guy's too smart for me. Just when I thought it was safe to accuse him of neo-conservative recklessness, he did the old Romney switcheroo.

You know how it goes. One day, the guy's the moderate governor of Massachusetts, handing out universal healthcare like it's Halloween candy. The next day, he hates Obamacare and he's planning to invade Syria, Iran, Russia, and China all at once (because why shouldn't we be able to fight four wars at once? Or five?). But just when you think you've got him pegged, all of a sudden you're looking at Mahatma Ghandi again.

That was Mitt on Monday: sort of a muscular Gandhi. "I want to see peace," he piously told the debate audience. "I want to see growing peace." And, in case you didn't get that, he clarified that people all over the world "vote for peace... people don't vote for war." What's more, "We don't want another Iraq, we don't want another Afghanistan." No: "our purpose is to make sure the world is more -- is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet."

Well, color me kumbaya! At one point during Monday's debate, Obama accused Romney of yearning for the good old days of the Cold War. But for most of Monday night, Romney sounded like he'd suddenly gotten nostalgic for the sixties.

Throughout the debate, in fact, Romney kept trying to outflank Obama from the left. No more war, he insisted -- and as for terrorism, well, "we can't kill our way out of this mess." Instead, we should help get "the Muslim world...to reject extremism on its own." How? Foreign aid, economic development, gender equality (a binder in every pot!), education, and rule of law. And in a somewhat muddled nod to international law, he even seemed to suggest that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should be "indicted under the Genocide Convention," presumably by the International Criminal Court.

In fact, if you'd just shown me a transcript of the debate, there were many passages in which I'd have been hard pressed to figure out which candidate was the Democrat and which was the Republican, so thoroughly did the two men at times reverse roles on Monday night. There was Romney, singing "Give Peace a Chance," while Obama took him to task for having once neglected to insist that al Qaeda is the greatest threat facing the United States. There was Romney, urging the use of "peaceful and diplomatic means" to "dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon," while Obama insisted that "as long as I'm president of the United States, Iran will not get a nuclear weapon" and threatened to "take all options necessary" if the regime didn't "meet the demands of the international community."

The debate also offered touching moments of bipartisan harmony: both Romney and Obama want to make friends with the right sort of Syrians, neither is mourning Osama bin Laden; both think drone strikes are nifty, both want out of Afghanistan in 2014, both thought Egypt's Mubarak had to go, and both were cringe-inducingly anxious to declare that Israel is our #1 BFF 4ever.

And, of course, everyone loves teachers. And research.

All in all, the debate was a bit of a head-scratcher -- at least for those of us who'd like to think that presidential candidates tell the truth more often than they lie. How are we supposed to decide who to vote for, when everyone just wants world peace?

History, however, suggests that this is a false dilemma. True, the candidates' words -- especially their campaign season words -- correlate only poorly with their policies once in office. But there does seem to be a strong correlation between personnel and policy. Identify their advisers and their staff, and you'll get a pretty good sense of the kinds of policies you'll get.

We saw this in the Bush years: George W. Bush sounded reasonably moderate during the 2000 election. He eschewed nation-building and promised a more humble foreign policy, and many liberals convinced themselves that there wasn't really much foreign policy difference between Bush and Gore. But once in office, Bush's campaign pledges fell by the wayside, and his foreign policies closely matched the neo-conservative blueprints of key aides like Dick Cheney, John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Rumsfeld.

We've seen it with Obama, too: He was a left-liberal presidential candidate in 2008, but as soon as he got into office, he surrounded himself with centrists and political hatchet men. His supporters on the left spent a year or two wringing their hands and worrying that these misguided staff choices (Hillary Clinton! Rahm Emmanuel! Larry Summers!) would interfere with the poor president's ability to carry out his visionary left-liberal agenda. After a certain point, however, the truth began to sink in: Obama didn't actually have a left-liberal agenda. He was a centrist, and that's why he appointed centrists to his inner circle. Personnel decisions are policy decisions, and Obama's policies have, for the most part, been as centrist as the majority of his political appointments.

So if we want to predict the foreign policy of a Romney White House, we'd probably do better to look at his friends and advisors than listen to his words. And it ain't a pretty sight: Mitt Romney's inner circle looks an awful lot like George W. Bush's inner circle, mostly because they're made up of the exact same guys. John Bolton? Check: a major Romney campaign trail surrogate. Dick Cheney? Check: He's hosting fundraisers for Romney, who praises him as a "person of wisdom and judgment." Then there's Robert Kagan, a founder of the neo-con Project for a New American Century; Dan Senor, former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq; Eliot Cohen, a former Condoleezza Rice senior staffer; Eric Edelman, former Cheney aide and Doug Feith's successor as undersecretary of defense for policy...the list of influential Bush-era neo-cons goes on and on. Of the 24 people listed as foreign policy advisers on the Romney web site, 17 worked for George W. Bush's administration.

This, at the end of the day, is the primary reason to hope that Obama wins the election on November 6. He's far from perfect, and his foreign policy team is far from perfect, but as I noted earlier, they've managed to avoid any major national security catastrophes. But Romney's team? These are the guys who brought us torture, black sites, damaged alliances, open sneering at international institutions, and two bloody, financially ruinous wars. And in this uncertain world, you can be sure of one thing: If Mitt Romney wins, they'll do their best to bring it all back.

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images

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