The two debate lies that could nail Mitt Romney

Has Obama given Romney enough rope to hang himself with?

Most observers here are saying President Barack Obama lost the first presidential debate with Mitt Romney, and perhaps they are right. The Republican nominee was eager to make his case before millions of television viewers. He was polite, witty, sympathetic to the plight of the middle class, and in command of the format. More importantly, he looked like a human being.

The president, on the other hand, was wonky and dry, more Explainer-in-Chief than Commander-in-Chief. He let Romney push him into a corner. He was on his heels. He didn't fight back. And he didn't use an arsenal of counterattacks available to him, like, "How can you stand there and tell the American people that you care about them when we know how you feel about 47 per cent of them." Predictably, this drove liberals, Democrats, and admirers crazy.

As The Daily Beast's Andrew Sullivan, an Obama supporter, said:

[T]his was a disaster for the president for the key people he needs to reach, and his effete, wonkish lectures may have jolted a lot of independents into giving Romney a second look. 

Obama looked tired, even bored; he kept looking down; he had no crisp statements of passion or argument; he wasn't there. He was entirely defensive, which may have been the strategy. But it was the wrong strategy. At the wrong moment [my italics].

James Carville, who was President Bill Clinton's adviser, said on CNN:

I had one overwhelming impression [that] it looked like Mitt Romney wanted to be there and President Obama didn't want to be there. ... I think he wanted to be there. I think he knew he needed this, and I think Obama gave the sense he wasn’t happy to be at this debate.

Matt Bai, a reporter for The New York Times, suggested that perhaps the president expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the job of being president.

Mr. Obama’s goal, it seems, was to indicate his continued willingness to serve in a job he believes he can do better than the other guy, but that doesn’t really seem to enervate or enliven him. That’s a problem, and not only for the duration of the campaign.

Yet much of this is surely overblown. If Obama did lose the debate, it's in part because the commentariat tells us he did, and much of the commentariat is telling us he did because, I suspect, it's applying the normative values of "American Idol" contestants to the ambiguities of presidential candidates.

That's why we are hearing so much about how Romney looked like he really wanted to be there, how confident he appeared and ready to be in charge. Obama, on the other hand, didn't appear to have anything to prove. He didn't want it enough. Meanwhile, the pundits forget Obama is the incumbent, and by nature of being the incumbent, he doesn't have anything to prove. It's the challenger's burden to prove the president is no longer fit to serve.

Still, when seasoned liberals start panicking, you worry. Bob Moser, of The American Prospect, wondered which Obama will show up next time, and what he will do when Romney hurls salvos of equivocation and mendacity.

The question for the remaining debates is no longer the one people were asking prior to Denver: 'Which Romney will show up?' It’s which Obama will show up—the half-asleep one who declined to debate on Wednesday night, or the jolted-awake one who so effectively hammered his opponent’s dishonesty half a day too late?

But here's the thing: What if the real Obama was there? Think about it. What if the president was setting a trap for Romney? It's not as odd as it sounds.

First, the real effect of this debate, as with any debate, probably won't be felt for another few days during which time pollsters will attempt to measure public opinion. Meanwhile, the punditocracy will cycle and recycle the debate until no one remembers what happened, only what it says happened.

While there will be time spent wondering why the president wasn't more assertive, and time spent speculating on how Romney's "win" will give him a bounce in the polls, that will fade, and eventually the substance of the debate will come to the fore, and that's where the president has set a trap.

Romney's fundamental liability, among many cosmetic liabilities, has been that he lies. A lot. Steve Benen, who blogs for MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show, has attempted to document them all (a heroic effort), but Romney's reputation as a dissembler has not yet risen to the level of national consciousness. With 58 million people watching the debate, however, that may soon change.

The president did appear to be on the defensive, but like a counter-punching boxer, that may have been to his advantage. I don't mean to make Obama seem cleverer than need be here, but he was able to do in 90 minutes what many journalist have failed to do since Romney began running: pin him down. And knowing that he was being pinned down, Romney did what he does. He lied.

What happened? Obama told the truth.

Romney's budget proposal includes tax cuts for the rich, tax hikes for the middle class. I won't go into the details, but that's right. It has been known for months, and many say the effects of the plan would be a campaign-killer if the effects of the plan were well known. So guess what was Romney's reaction was? Nope, nuh-uh. I don't support a $5trn tax cut, no tax hike on the middle class.

So Big Lie No. 1.
Second, Obama said Romney wants to repeal Obamacare but doesn't say what he will replace it with. Romney said his plan will prevent private insurance companies from discriminating on the basis of so-called preexisting conditions, as Obamacare does. That's true except for being entirely false.

Romney has said anyone who already has insurance will enjoy health care protection under his proposal. As for everyone else, his senior adviser told Talking Points Memo that the Romney replacement plan will actually leave that up to states. In other words, Romney has no plan to protect the sick from discrimination unless they already have insurance, which is already the law.

So Big Lie No. 2.

Remember, the president is the incumbent. The burden of proof is on the Republican nominee's shoulders, and for all the talk about his victory, no one is saying that he made a convincing case that the president's time is up.

Conversely, all Obama has to do to win is cast doubt on Romney. He continued to portray himself as the most reasonable man in the room, above the fray, and deeply concerned about the health and welfare of ordinary Americans. At the same time, he made one solid point. That Romney isn't on the level.

Romney says he'll repeal Obamacare, but doesn't say what he'll replace it with. He says he'll cut taxes by 20 per cent, but doesn't say how he'll pay for it. Over the next few days, as the commentariat chews on the debate, all the talk about posture, eye contact and poor moderating will dissipate, but what will rise to the top is that Romney lied about two of the major concerns of the day.
All of this combined may cast an enormous shadow of doubt over the Romney campaign. If voters are doubtful, they may choose to stick with Obama.

By remaining cool and likeable, and by speaking the plain truth, Obama might have given Romney just enough rope to hang himself with. Time will tell of course, but time is the very thing that's on the president's side.


Obama and Romney during the debate. Photograph: Getty Images

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.


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Meeting the foreign fighters: how does Islamic State recruit thousands of Westerners?

To understand why IS draws thousands of would-be fighters from the West, we need to view the militant group through the lens of the fighters themselves.

As we trudged through a deserted city park north of Copenhagen, Shiraz Tariq was trying to make it clear to me that he is no fan of sheer violence.

“No sane man kills for fun. Not even his enemies,” he said. “But implementing an Islamic State takes sacrifices. It is our duty to fight the infidels and take back what it was they took away from us. It is our duty to implement the caliphate.”

For almost a decade, 33-year-old Tariq had been the leading figure among militant Islamists in Denmark, having ties to several convicted terrorists and actively recruiting foreign fighters to war in Syria. A few months after our meeting, in late 2012, the Danish-Pakistani salafist left himself, ending up joining the extremist group that would later be known to the world as Islamic State.

When I wrote to Tariq the following summer, he seemed happy with his decision: “Islam is superior and will never be beaten,” he replied to me, adding a smiley.

However, it was the other, less jolly, parts of Tariq’s message to me that came into mind recently when watching the events unfold in France.

Not only did Tariq sound like a revanchist; he felt he was taking part in a story of legitimate state-building and revival of Islamic pride.

“The goal of the Muslims is also to restore the power we had in the past (we are very close),” Tariq wrote. “My goal is to fight the infidels until the state is implemented.”

Indeed, that’s how IS and its sympathisers see themselves. As the holy and devout Dawlat al-Islamiya, the Islamic State. Supporters of the group – from foot soldiers on the frontline to fanboys in France – simply call it Dawla, the state.

It’s anything but a coincidence. And it says a lot about the group whose appeal we must understand if we want to unmount it. If we are to comprehend the rationale of European jihadists for joining IS, we ought to ask the jihadists themselves.

What I learned from interviewing more than a dozen foreign fighters is that no matter how the West is combating IS military, it may not make any difference.

Bombing IS may contain, or even defeat, the group’s presence in Syria and Iraq, but it won’t eradicate the tale of construction, pride and long-sought revenge that it offers to its fans.

IS may never succeed in creating a sustainable state – the group lacks support from the Muslim Arab masses and though its appeal transcends ethnic and geographical borders, it will never see the popularity of other revolutionary states like Russia, Cuba and Iran – but it doesn’t change the minds of radicalised young Westerners who are drawn to what they think of as a legitimate revolution.

For all its faults, IS has embarked on a sincere mission to restore Muslim pride. And though other push-pull factors also play a part, we need to understand how crucial this is.

* * *

Early evening on Friday 13 November, I boarded a flight to Madrid to speak at an annual conference where leading terrorism researchers in Europe meet to share thoughts and perspectives. Based on research for my recent book on Danish jihadists, I had prepared a speech about what the fighters’ self-perception tells us about the threat from militant Islamists against Europe.

When I arrived in Spain, the reality had flown ahead of me: While I was soaring over Paris, perpetrators down in the streets were transforming the French capital into the scene of IS’s first large-scale attack against Europe. A strike manifesting the threat posed by spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani in his 42-minute speech from September 2014, in which he urged sympathisers and returnees alike to attack their respective native countries. And an attack that – apart from French-Algerian Mehdi Nemmouche’s attack against a Jewish museum in Brussels in May last year –seems to be the first one in Europe carried out by fighters that have had previous training from IS in Syria, raising concerns in intelligence agencies across the continent.

Whether the Paris attack heralds a new agenda of global ambitions for the extremist group or is merely an isolated show of force, the core question remains the same for European policymakers: Why on earth would thousands of Western Muslims, born and raised in safe democratic societies, turn their backs on their native countries, enter a dangerous civil war to which they often have no ethnic relation, and join the so-called Islamic State?

When talking to IS recruits and sympathisers, an under-discussed – yet crucial in terms of pinning down IS’s appeal – narrative recurs. This narrative could see IS gain power in future years if it is not addressed and countered. Despite what we might believe in the West, IS is generally considered by its sympathisers as a constructive protect, focused mainly on state-building and restoring Islamic pride rather than raging war in Europe or causing death to its opponents.

While al-Qaeda early on defined "the far enemy" (the US and Europe) as its main target, IS has so far narrowed its primary focus to the fight against "the near enemy", ie. neighboring Muslim countries and rival groups.

While al-Qaeda has been determined to fly planes into American skyscrapers almost regardless of the presence of Western military in the Middle East, IS has been preoccupied with local conquest, limiting its rhetoric to a kind of we-bomb-you-if-you-bomb-us narrative.

While al-Qaeda has proven to be a destructive movement, aimed at tearing something down, IS has been focused on building something up right from its first organisational charts.

As a 21-year-old Danish-Lebanese militant Islamist and outspoken IS sympathiser told me in April when we met at a coffee shop north of Copenhagen: “Do you honestly think Dawla is more interested in destroying a random subway station than creating a caliphate?”

Later I replied to him that IS had burned a Jordanian air force pilot alive, and the lengthy covert negotiations with Jordan prior to the gruesome execution suggests IS has ambitions extending beyond regional borders.

“It’s quite simple,” the extremist told me in our interview. “It’s a message to the kuffar [a derogatory term for non-Muslims] telling them to stay away and mind their own business. We are building a state and that is not a project that concerns the imperialists. It concerns the Muslims and it is for the sake of the Muslims that we are establishing this. We are creating a building [place] where Muslim brothers and sisters can live peacefully together in the same society.”

The noticeable focus on state-building suggests IS no longer appeals merely to young men. Dozens of women from the US, UK and the vast majority of Western European countries are now travelling to the caliphate where several are working as school teachers near Hasakah, daycare helpers in Mosul, and sick children’s nurses at the hospital in Raqqa; important functions in IS’s endeavours to maintain a complete and valid state.

Moreover, the women are also bringing along another important resource: the ability to give birth. Married couples eventually become families and families are what gives a state legitimacy.

* * *

However, while this utopian tale of the future is shaping the minds of radicalised youngsters, the past is also alluring.

Sit down and talk to IS soldiers and would-be jihadists alike and you will repeatedly hear them describe IS as the closest they have ever come to the vision of restoring the most holy and pure caliphate in history: the one that existed in the time of the prophet and has ever since been a guiding star for salafist communities.

Ultra conservative customs have been revived. So has the jizya, a tax levied by IS on non-Muslims, as well as the gold dinar, which was introduced though a high resolution propaganda video released by the group’s media department earlier this year. All this serves to declare the summoning of a new Islamic golden age.

As the self-proclaimed caliph of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said while declaring the caliphate in his infamous speech during the Friday prayers at Mosul’s Great Mosque in July 2014: under his direction and leadership, the Islamic world would be returned to “dignity, might, rights and leadership”.

Likewise, it was hardly a coincidence when the group in those weeks released a video showing a Chilean IS fighter guiding the audience through a demolished border post separating Syria from Iraq.

What seemed like piles of rubble to outsiders represented a deeply symbolic victory to IS and its sympathisers: for the first time, a group had the power and political influence to eradicate national borders in the Middle East drawn with a ruler as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement. In the video, titled The End of the Sykes-Picot, they claimed to be redrawing the map, creating a proud and almost cosmopolitan society for Muslims of all kinds.

It worked. Foreign fighters from the US and Europe flocked to the new utopia, to Bilad al-Sham, the place that had served as a province in recent caliphates and, according to the holy texts, will be the scene of a final apocalyptic battle between Muslims and non-Muslims in the town of Dabiq.

In other words, foreign fighters are not merely travelling to an eschatological group with the ability to redraw the world map. They are travelling to a perceived hub of the universe from where Islamic self-confidence shall blossom.

It’s about pride. Muslim countries have suffered from colonisation, they account for a severely limited percentage of the world’s economic output, and the number of new book titles published every year in Arabic, the language spoken by 360m, equals those published in Romanian.

Any oppressed group of people needs a saviour. As novelist Mohammed Hanif put it when explaining the results of the elections in Pakistan: “Poor people, who couldn't afford a bicycle at the time of the elections, like to be promised an airport.”

Husain Haqqani, senior fellow at the Hudsom Institute, made a similar point in The American Interest recently: “Muslim leaders and intellectuals have created a narrative of victimhood to explain Muslim debility, which in turn enables extremist groups to offer extreme strategies to change the circumstances.”

From this perspective, IS has successfully rewritten the tale of intellectual defeat suffered by Muslim countries in the last century.

* * *

When I listen to jihadists, I find that pride plays an important role in their thinking. They talk about “the state” as if the group represents a kind of modern Islamic revanchism. They talk about taking part in building up a historic caliphate that could be the home of their family and future generations. They talk about regenerating Muslim self-confidence.

It may sound bizarre to Western ears – even more so in light of the deadly Paris attacks that, according to some scholars, could indicate IS's ambitious global strategy. Nevertheless, it is through this prism that the group's sympathisers see the attacks in Beirut, Sinai, and Paris.

The question is, then, what to do. We tend to point towards outer conditions when trying to explain radicalisation: rhetoric, integration, ghettos, Islamophobia. But take a look at Europe and you will discover comparable numbers of foreign fighters in France and Britain, two countries pursuing completely different policies on integration.

Italy has massive social problems but has produced only 83 foreign fighters out of a Muslim population of at least 1.5m people, according to Italian intelligence statistics.

Denmark has been tough on immigration, Sweden the opposite. Adjusted for population size, the number of Danish and Swedish IS fighters are almost identical.

Outer conditions are definitely not unimportant in the creation of a fertile soil from which militant Islamist groups to recruit. But when it comes to explaining the appeal of IS, they are inadequate at best.

Numerous conversations with IS fighters and sympathisers have convinced me that the “inner tale” of the jihadists cannot be emphasised enough. IS has mutated into an ideology that transcends national borders and continents. An idea, vision, and narrative about revenge, pride, and success – as opposed to the life in Europe that for many radicalised individuals is associated with social marginalisation and exclusion.

To a large extent, this narrative is what mobilises fighter after fighter from Western countries. And it is a narrative that is to be defeated by counter-narratives, not bombs.

As long as Western policymakers fail to understand this, Western foreign fighters will keep flocking to the "caliphate".

Jakob Sheikh is an award-winning investigative reporter with the Danish daily Politiken, specialising in radicalisation and foreign fighters. In October, he released his bestselling book about Danish Islamic State fighters, drawing on radical Islamist groups, and foreign Islamic State fighters, as well as key sources in the militant Islamist environment in Scandinavia.