During the 2008 foreign policy debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, there was no mention of drone strikes. Syria popped up only in a single sentence, and Libya was part of the vast swath of the global landscape ignored by both candidates. Even China (then, as now, our banker of last resort) was referred to in passing only five times—and one of those was a reference to Richard Nixon’s landmark trip.
These geopolitical gaps are part of the built-in limitations of foreign policy debates. Many global problems that will be high on the agenda for the next four years in the White House will never be discussed or even contemplated.
Monday night’s debate in Boca Raton, Fla., is unlikely to be so contentious that it will become known as the Choker in Boca. But with the two candidates out to land blows in an agonizingly close race, all foreign policy questions will be seen through even more of a political lens than exists in the White House. Short-term thinking rather than global strategy is apt to be tonight’s theme. Someday, Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s inevitable skirmishing over Benghazi will seem as off-kilter as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon donnybrook over the obscure islands Quemoy and Matsu.
This is not to deny the substantive importance of a debate during which—to conjure up a 1960s chant—“the whole world is watching.” Beyond America’s chosen role as the only cop on the worldwide beat, there is no policy arena where a president can act with more freedom and fewer restraints than foreign policy. Barring a military intervention that goes awry, Congress has ceded much of its decision-making power to the president.
Even if would-be presidents cannot predict the foreign crises they will face, these debates sometimes do shine a bright light on their foreign-policy plans. In his 2008 debate with McCain, Obama declared, “If the United States has al-Qaida, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights—and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act—then we should take them out.” It is a safe bet that every word uttered tonight will be parsed in foreign capitals for hidden policy implications.
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Tonight’s debate will be the first face-off over national security in history between two presidential candidates who have never served in the military. In theory, Obama as the incumbent president should have a house advantage over Romney, whose only foreign policy credential is having run the Winter Olympics.
But debates can move in strange directions, and it has often been the case that domestic issues have hogged the spotlight on an evening supposedly devoted to foreign policy. For all the Republican focus on Benghazi and Iran, Romney is presumed to have an edge whenever the topic turns to jobs rather than jihad.
“Whether the debate will be about national security or economic security will be central to how it will turn out for Romney,” said Republican pollster David Winston, who is not involved in the presidential race. That used to be the out-of-power Democratic mantra. Bill Clinton made an analogous argument when he said during a 1992 debate with incumbent George H.W. Bush, “In this world, economic security is a whole lot of national security.”
The flashpoint in tonight’s debate may well be Iran and its quest for nuclear weapons, which is a rare foreign policy issue that has penetrated the America-first mindset of most voters. A just-released poll, conducted in the two largest swing states early this month, found that 72 percent of voters in Florida and 61 percent in Ohio say they are “very interested” in hearing the candidates’ views on Iran getting nuclear weapons. In this poll, sponsored by the Belfer Center at Harvard, a nuclear-armed Iran is a slightly more pressing concern than the war in Afghanistan and is regarded as much more worrisome than the fate of the euro.
America's political leaders, though, have been using the same code words about the Iranian nuclear program for years. As Obama said during the 2008 foreign policy debate, “Sen. McCain is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran.” But what remains murky is what the trip wire is—and what would be the American stance toward an Israeli go-it-alone attack?
During the vice presidential debate, a sharp question from moderator Martha Raddatz prompted Paul Ryan to take the bellicose line that another American war in the Middle East is preferable to tolerating Iranian nuclear weapons. Joe Biden, who kept stressing the potency of the economic sanctions against Iran, countered, “War should always be the absolute last resort.”
Complicating the equation is a New York Times report contending that the United States and Iran have agreed to hold one-on-one talks on the nuclear weapons program after the election. This story has subsequently been denied by both the White House and the Iranian foreign ministry. But to use a line popularized in a different context, “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”
The biggest mystery hovering over the debate is not Iran’s nuclear intentions, but the kind of foreign policy that Romney would pursue from the Oval Office. At times during the campaign, Romney has sounded like Dick Cheney on steroids and has embraced hard-right advisers like former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton. But last week Condoleezza Rice, who embodies Republican foreign policy pragmatism, campaigned in Ohio with Ryan.
Four years ago, during his foreign policy debate with McCain, it is unlikely that Obama imagined that he would spend lonely evenings in the White House assessing the evidence to justify drone attacks against known and suspected terrorists.
Such is the nature of national security; it leads all presidents in unexpected directions. That is why what ultimately may be memorable about tonight’s debate is what isn’t said, rather than the meticulously rehearsed responses of Obama and Romney.