Interview

Burning Questions

Burning Questions

Martha Raddatz, the veteran ABC News correspondent and moderator of the vice presidential debate, talks to Foreign Policy about what she didn’t get to grill Joe Biden and Paul Ryan on — and the big questions that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama shouldn’t be allowed to duck in their upcoming foreign-policy showdown.

Foreign Policy: There was some criticism in the last debate that you might have focused too much on foreign policy (not from our readers, of course), but there must be so much that you didn’t get a chance to ask. So what’s on the top of your agenda, if you could have some time with the presidential candidates?

Martha Raddatz: There’s so much I didn’t get to ask. The VP debate was supposed to be divided between foreign and domestic policy, and I think it was pretty much down the middle. But Pakistan and the issue of drones is at the top of the list. Think about it: Pakistan has enough nuclear material for 100 bombs, an unstable government, radical Islamic influence in its military, and they pretty much turn a blind eye when terrorists cross the border into Afghanistan and kill our troops. What are you going to do about it?

A former U.S. official said to me that he found it interesting that the U.S. has not really captured high-value targets or suspected insurgents in the last few years and that the administration outlawed waterboarding and methods of interrogation. And yet we’re killing suspected terrorists in record numbers. This is not a question I came up with, by the way, but I think it’s a really interesting one.

But I’d have a lot of questions about drones. Who should these decisions be up to? Would anything change on the drone policy if Romney and Ryan were elected? How would they view the question of who to strike or not to strike — without judicial process? And do drones produce more enemies or do they reduce the threat enough that it balances out?

What do the candidates think we’ll end up with in Afghanistan in 2014? And how serious is the threat of Al Qaeda in the world anymore? I mean, al Qaeda no longer has its iconic head – of course it still has [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, but has it morphed into something more or less dangerous?

FP: Do you think there’s real daylight between the two parties on foreign policy right now?

MR: I don’t think there are enormous differences on this. They certainly try to go at each other on Libya, but that’s not really a policy question as much as it is just seeing what happened there in that instance. I think they have an overall different approach to foreign policy, but when you get down in the weeds I’m not sure there are major, major differences. Perhaps on Iran there are some subtle differences. We’ll see a lot more on Monday with the debate, but on the face it’s hard to see.

FP: What do you think about the politics that’s being played over the Benghazi attack?

MR: I don’t want to go there! But I think there are major questions to be asked about the attack. From day one, there were questions. The biggest question now is who said that there were protests there. My reporting early on was that we don’t know. And a senior U.S. official said to me, "We don’t think it had anything to do with protests." So why was it like that in the first couple of days, and then five or six days later you have someone saying that these appear to be spontaneous attacks? I would love to know where that story first started. Politics aside, there are some serious questions to be asked there.

FP: What else would you like to put to the presidential candidates?

MR: There has to be more about our veterans returning home and how we take care of them. About the mental health issues and the transition issues they will face. And really about helping the country stay engaged in that war. I find it really frustrating. There’s been a lot of talk about Afghanistan in the last few months, but over the last couple years there just wasn’t anything beyond "Yeah, we’re leaving or we’re sending in more troops, but we’ll pull them out soon." I just think we can’t forget about that war — because we’re still at war.

China will also definitely come up on Monday. If you go through the list of the most pressing threats in the world today, and then look at China, you’d then ask: "Wait, so why are we pivoting to China?" Does this challenge China in a way we don’t want to challenge them? Does it end up in a more confrontational mode because of the build-up in Asia? Would the candidates say that there is a real China threat?

FP: What about the conversation on Middle East policy?

MR: I think there needs to be more questions on the support of democracy around the world. Do we support democracy in Saudi Arabia, in Bahrain? How far are they willing to go with the Arab Spring question? How far do we press our allies on democracy?

Also, there’s the question of Syria intervention: Would they ever put boots on the ground? You look at these horrendous stories about a young boy being tortured and then you go back to the president’s speech about Libya arguing for intervention, and I’d ask: "So what’s different in Syria?"

Look, human rights is a really tricky problem. Probably every candidate in the world, once they get into office, says: "Woah, this is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be."

FP: What would you ask about Russia?

MR: I think in some ways the best way to get at this is to go in backwards. To ask: "So what would the consequences be if the president didn’t push through the missile reductions with Russia?" I mean, do we want Russia as an enemy again?

You know, here’s another great question: World War II is a long time ago, do we really need as many troops as we have in Europe? I asked the vice presidential candidates, but don’t think I really got an answer to this question: "What national security interests really justify a really large increase in the defense budget?"

FP: I think we’re over our two minutes. Final question: Do you think the American public really cares all that much about foreign policy?

MR: I don’t think they care as much as they should — and I wish they did. It’s one of the things I thought very much about at the vice president debate. I didn’t want my questions to be in the weeds. I wanted it to be something that people could understand and relate to. I mean Iran, for one, is an enormous issue. What I wish people would realize is that all of these foreign policy decisions really affect us at home — in our lives, in our pocketbooks. What the president and vice-president decide on these issues affect all of us, every single day.