It’s worse when candidates agree

Here’s something neither candidate said, but could have, at Monday’s presidential debate over foreign policy when it came to the Middle East: emphasize secular governments over religious ones. Neither President Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney could say that, of course, because they don’t want to be seen as being anti-Islam, or even worse in modern America, anti-religion.

And while I’m not one of those who believes religion causes all wars, or all mass murder, I am one who knows that some of history’s greatest obscenities would not have been possible without religion. And so long as there exist people who believe a justifiable recompense for the disrespect of their religious icons is murder, we will have a conflict of civilizations that no foreign aid, no building of roads or schools or hospitals, will ever be able to cure.

Instead, Romney said we need to turn the people away from radical extremism, by which we can assume he means the brand of fundamentalist Islam that smiles upon using airplanes as weapons of mass destruction. That’s true. But wouldn’t it be better to suggest that we support countries that can see their way to divorcing religion from governance in the first place?

Then again, that opens the door for somebody to ask Romney and Obama if they believe in separating church and state here at home.

• One of the highlights of Monday’s debate was the president finally putting to rest Romney’s canard that the Navy has fewer ships today than at any time since 1913. Obama’s retort – that we also field far fewer horses and bayonets – gets to a greater point: It’s not a question of how many ships you have, it’s a question of whether you have enough ships of the appropriate type to support the modern mission of the Navy.

The numbers question can easily be put to rest this way: Which would you rather command, Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s entire 27-ship Trafalgar fleet, which defeated the superior Spanish and French armada in 1805, or a single Nimitz-class aircraft carrier and her fighter complement?

• One of the lowlights of Monday’s debate was the moment (one of many, it turns out) in which Romney enthusiastically concurred with Obama’s use of armed drones to strike at enemy targets in the Middle East.

Yes, the drones enable us to go places (and go more quickly) than using actual sailors or soldiers on the ground. But these drone strikes – which have increased greatly in number under Obama’s presidency – have also caused many civilian casualties and engendered a good deal of hostility toward the United States abroad.

If Romney really wanted to start creating allies in the Middle East and demonstrate a happy distinction with Obama, he might have urged a more judicious use of American drones. But he didn’t.

• Both candidates also promised Iran would not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon on their respective watches. That’s undoubtedly a good thing; a nuclear-armed theocracy – especially one that mutters genocidal thoughts about a nearby nation – is a nightmare the world does not need.

But it’s little wonder that Iran lusts after a nuclear bomb, quite apart from its hatred of Israel. It sees how the United States invaded Iraq, but despite provocations, has not invaded North Korea or Pakistan.

The difference? North Korea and Pakistan are nuclear nations, and Iraq is not. The message is: In order to get respect in the community of nations, one must first have the means to destroy the community of nations. This is what the lawyers call a “perverse incentive.”

Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at (702) 387-5276 or ssebelius@reviewjournal.com.

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