President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney engaged in a spirited debate Monday that reached into the corners of the world — the Middle East, Latin America and China.
For members of the International Relations Council of Kansas City, foreign affairs are the top of the agenda. Founded in 1954, the non-profit, non-partisan council hosts world leaders, reaches out annually to students and teachers, and works to increase discussion of Kansas City’s links to the world stage.
At the invitation of The Kansas City Star, members of the IRC watched the debate together, agreeing to give their reactions to Obama and Romney’s dialogue.
• Dennis Cross, 72, a retired lawyer, a U.S. Navy veteran and an assistant counsel with the Federal Trade Commission.
• Michael Wizniak, 36, a veteran, management student and a multi-lingual student at the Defense Language Institute.
• Cyprienne Simchowitz, 61, a native of France, a lawyer, international consultant and president of the Alliance Francaise in Kansas City.
• Michael Wood, 70, former Peace Corps volunteer and State Department employee, and a retired health care consultant.
Bill Eckhardt, 71, professor at UMKC Law School, a former military lawyer and teacher at the Command College in Leavenworth.
After each segment of the debate The Star talked with panelists about what they had heard. Their comments were edited for length and clarity.America’s role in the world, and the military
“Romney, I believe, gave a very strong, clear, very well-spoken five points. After that, I felt Obama did a better job of relating the importance of education and explaining the military a lot better. Romney showed a surface understanding of the military, where Obama seemed to go into a full understanding. It didn’t appear to me that Romney did.”
“Obama, by virtue of his office, is able to play that card: I talked to the Secretary of Defense every day. There’s no way that Romney can play on that field.
“I didn’t think that the president’s sarcasm about the Navy was particularly effective. I had a negative reaction to that. He (Romney) doesn’t know about these things called aircraft carriers? I thought that was a little cheap.”
“I thought that Romney continued the bluster a little bit. He said our military is second to none in the world, but it’s not strong enough. So how strong must it be? First in the universe?”
“Actually, President Obama did a good job in showing that our budget for the military is equivalent to the next 10 countries.”Policy in Libya, Syria and the Middle East
: “American foreign policy as embodied in some of the things Romney said comes across as very truculent — too much bluster, too much muscle. That has been a problem for 20 or 30 years. But now the image of the United States has improved dramatically. That is to say, yes the Muslim Brotherhood is in Egypt, but it’s a democracy. And democracy is a very messy business. I think Romney undercut his own case by trying to push our forceful, do-what-we-want attitude.”
: “The issue is who is more presidential. You have the president here being litigative, looking at the past. Romney this time is giving a big picture, rather brilliantly stating it.
“Romney has the big picture, he has a plan, he gave an overview. He didn’t try to litigate the past.”
: “Romney seems to say that everything is going wrong. But he doesn’t seem to know where really it comes from. I think that his mention of we should do more foreign aid, more economic development (overseas), the Republicans have cut foreign aid for a long time, so that’s a little bit hypocritical to say that because foreign aid amounts to nothing, basically.”
“I thought at least at the beginning, it was kind of the reverse of the first debate, Romney was the one who was being statesmanlike and seeming to agree with much of Obama’s position, whereas Obama was on the attack and doing a lot of interrupting.
“I was a little bit put off by it. I kind of liked the Romney approach. I liked Romney’s response about Russia.”Regime changes in Egypt, Syria and the Middle East
: “They both created a good image of what America should be doing in this region of the world. But as it played out, there was a lot more confidence and experience that came out in Obama’s voice. With Romney, there was a lot more information dumping and ideological talk and not so much experience.
“I think the situation is so much more complex. To say that we just need to be putting weapons in the opposition’s hands without understanding the ambiguity or the complexity of coalition building in this region, especially coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan.”
: “I’m concerned about Romney’s ready, fire, aim in Syria. He said in the past that we should throw arms and things in there, and I’m afraid we just don’t know who’s in charge or who would get the arms.”
“To Romney’s credit, he said we do better when we are stronger economically. That’s a very strong point.”Israel, a nuclear Iran, and an ‘apology tour’
“Clearly, Romney (made the best points). What happens is, Obama never talks about the future...and he gets very personal and contentious.”
: “There wasn’t much distance between them on Iran. They tried to out-testosterone the other guy, who would be tougher. If it came to military (intervention), they probably would both do that.
“The idea of apology is nonsense. What we did is show respect for people who deserve respect, and warnings to people who didn’t.”
: “Not a huge disagreement. Our options are diminishing in Iran.
“I think (‘apology tour’) is a fair characterization in a political context, the heat of a political campaign, to say what you did was an apology tour because unlike any other president before you, you went out and made all these statements in other countries about how America had been wrong.”Pakistan
: “Romney alluded to Pashtun, the Taliban. He wanted to show he understood he had some information about tribal composition. That was a little maladroit. I don’t think there is much difference between the two.”
: “I had nothing on either side that was particularly significant factually. The goal of President Obama, apparently, is to make Mitt Romney look uninformed and bellicose. That’s not happening.”
: “It sounds like Obama dodged the subject of Pakistan. I don’t know if he’s smart or scared. He made good points on infrastructure building, taking care of veterans.”China
: “I thought both of them were a little too free with the protectionist rhetoric. They both give lip service that international trade is important and free trade is important. But the qualification always is they have to play by the rules. OK, sure, they’ve got to play by the rules. But that very easily morphs into a protectionist agenda, and that makes me a little uncomfortable.”
“There’s too much of the protectionist demonizing of China sort of thing, not that they shouldn’t be dealt with.”
“I don’t think either of them answered it properly (the biggest threats). I think the three biggest things are scarce resources, the G-20 and the markets we’re competing for, and our relationship with the Muslim world. I think Obama maybe was closer to that, but I don’t think either of them gave a good answer.”
“Romney gave a vision of going through four, five or six things of what he’d do with China. Obama simply talked about prior policies.”Overall impressions
: “I don’t see a winner or loser in this. I appreciated Obama’s calmer approach. It’s not always the use of force. I think the American people are tired of a decade of war, which actually put us in the deficit we are in.”
: “Romney did nothing to hurt himself tonight particularly. He looked quite strong as a leader, reasonably presidential. But Obama has a record to run on of quite some success, building our reputation and the killing of bin Laden. Obama had a strong record to run on and showed it.”
“I felt that Obama spoke from experience and it showed. He was confident with everything he said. He showed a deep comprehension of the complexities of geopolitical issues. Romney was confident sometimes. He seemed flustered toward the end on others. He did a lot of information dumping.”
Eckhardt: “This is sort of an amazing debate. There were no mistakes. The object of this debate was to see whether Romney would somehow be disqualified from being commander-in-chief. That’s what this is about. It depended upon whether primarily Romney would be informed and presidential. I think he was both.”