What foreign-policy issues were we debating four years ago?

To put the agenda for tonight’s foreign-policy debate topics in some context, it’s helpful to go back to a time before the Arab Spring, the European debt crisis, and the death of Osama bin Laden. When Barack Obama and John McCain met for their first debate in September 2008, the U.S. troop surge in Iraq ...


To put the agenda for tonight’s foreign-policy debate topics in some context, it’s helpful to go back to a time before the Arab Spring, the European debt crisis, and the death of Osama bin Laden.

When Barack Obama and John McCain met for their first debate in September 2008, the U.S. troop surge in Iraq was less than two years old, Benjamin Netanyahu was an opposition leader in Israel, Japan had a larger economy than China, and hostilities had recently erupted between Russia and Georgia. Lehman Brothers had just collapsed and Congress was considering a $700 billion bank bailout, spurring moderator Jim Lehrer to devote the first 40 minutes of what was supposed to be a debate on foreign policy and national security to the economy.

When Lehrer finally steered the debate to international affairs (an area in which McCain had the advantage), he asked about the lessons of the war in Iraq, the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan, the threat Iran posed to the United States, the future of U.S.-Russian relations, and the likelihood of another 9/11 attack.

Tonight’s face-off will likely look very different than the last presidential debate on foreign policy. Topics such as the Afghan war and the Iranian nuclear program will resurface in new ways, while others — the rise of China, America’s role in the world, the changing Middle East and terrorist threat — will achieve newfound prominence.

For a sense of how dramatically the foreign-policy conversation has changed in the space of four years, just look at some of the most memorable lines from the 2008 debate. In one of the most heated exchanges, for example, the candidates debated the success of the surge in Iraq.

OBAMA: [Our troops] have done a brilliant job, and General Petraeus has done a brilliant job. But understand, that was a tactic designed to contain the damage of the previous four years of mismanagement of this war.

And so John likes — John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. You talk about the surge. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong.

You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shiite and Sunni. And you were wrong….

MCCAIN: I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy…. Senator Obama refuses to acknowledge that we are winning in Iraq.

McCain also attacked Obama’s willingness to pursue terrorists in Pakistan (the GOP candidate later had to rein in Sarah Palin when she appeared to agree with Obama’s position):

MCCAIN: He said that he would launch military strikes into Pakistan.

Now, you don’t do that. You don’t say that out loud. If you have to do things, you have to do things, and you work with the Pakistani government….

OBAMA: Nobody talked about attacking Pakistan. Here’s what I said.

And if John wants to disagree with this, he can let me know, that, if the United States has al Qaeda, bin Laden, top-level lieutenants in our sights, and Pakistan is unable or unwilling to act, then we should take them out.

When the conversation turned to Iran, Obama ridiculed McCain’s "Bomb, Bomb, Iran" song and defended his pledge to meet with America’s adversaries without preconditions:

MCCAIN: Senator Obama twice said in debates he would sit down with Ahmadinejad, Chavez and Raul Castro without precondition. Without precondition. Here is Ahmadinenene [mispronunciation], Ahmadinejad, who is, Ahmadinejad, who is now in New York, talking about the extermination of the State of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map….

OBAMA: So let’s talk about this. First of all, Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he may not be the right person to talk to. But I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it’s going to keep America safe.

Now, understand what this means "without preconditions." It doesn’t mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don’t do what we’ve been doing, which is to say, "Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won’t have direct contacts with you."

While both candidates condemned Russia’s actions against Georgia, McCain also accused Obama of being soft on Moscow and too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief, playing off of George W. Bush’s bizarre remark in 2001 about looking into Putin’s eyes and getting a "sense of his soul."

OBAMA: [W]e have to have a president who is clear that you don’t deal with Russia based on staring into his eyes and seeing his soul. You deal with Russia based on, what are your — what are the national security interests of the United States of America?

And we have to recognize that the way they’ve been behaving lately demands a sharp response from the international community and our allies….

MCCAIN: Well, I was interested in Senator Obama’s reaction to the Russian aggression against Georgia. His first statement was, "Both sides ought to show restraint."

Again, a little bit of naivete there. He doesn’t understand that Russia committed serious aggression against Georgia. And Russia has now become a nation fueled by petro-dollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government.

I looked into Mr. Putin’s eyes, and I saw three letters, a "K," a "G," and a "B." And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior.

All this isn’t to say we won’t see shades of the previous foreign-policy debate tonight. In light of the New York Times report over the weekend about possible direct talks between Iran and the United States, Mitt Romney might argue that Barack Obama is naively sitting down with Iranian officials who won’t be negotiating in good faith. And you never know: Romney, who’s no fan of Vladimir Putin, could always borrow McCain’s KGB zinger. 

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