- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jim Gourley and Mike Gore
Best Defense gory analysts
Last night’s presidential debate on foreign policy is already old news, with most commentators hanging their hats on "horses and bayonets." History will no doubt remember these as some of the most memorable words of the campaign. But beyond declarations of winners, losers, and meme-worthy moments, the real significance of the dialogue lies in other words both spoken and unspoken.
An analysis of key terms indicates how the candidates’ arguments represent the greater American dialogue on foreign policy. There were several items mentioned enough times to merit a Twitter hashtag. Others were peculiarly absent.
A foreign policy discussion usually involves relations with other countries, so it’s probably most informative to assess which countries came up most often in the conversation. According to the transcript from last night’s debate, the rank-ordered list is:
Latin America: 4
North Korea: 1
It is evident that the single issue represented by tensions between Israel and Iran allow them to trump China, which presents a vast array of foreign policy challenges for the United States. It is also puzzling that Iran and Syria can be mentioned more than four and twice as many times as Russia, respectively, when that country is so instrumental in shielding them in the U.N. Security Council, not to mention its resurgence as a power broker in its own right. Afghanistan, the only country where the American military is actively engaged in a full-scale war, is number six.
Also remarkable are those left unmentioned. Completely left out of the discussion are the United States’ closest neighbors, as well as Palestine, the diplomatic gravity of which is inescapable by the second-most talked about country in the debate. Especially troubling is Mexico. When one considers the political instability, rising violence and influence of the cartels, the infiltration of drug gangs into the United States, and the increasing sophistication of their networks, it is arguable that narco-terrorism to the south is a greater existential threat to national security than fundamentalist terrorism based overseas.
To further contextualize the shift in American foreign policy dialogue, we examined the transcripts for all three debates during the 2000 presidential election and select phrases in the 2008 foreign policy debate. None of the debates focused on specific issues, which led us to aggregate the total mentions in conversation. The countries, by number of mentions:
Middle East: 18
A comparison before and after 9/11 indicates significant changes in the dialogue. Before 2001, only two countries in the Middle East were mentioned by name in the debates. The rest were considered part of a larger amalgam. In 2012, half a dozen are mentioned by name. Though Russia is arguably as relevant today as it was then, it only received half as many by-name references in this debate. This precipitous decline in noteworthiness seems only to have occurred in the last four years. In the 2008 foreign policy debate, it was tied with Iran for most-mentioned country with 31 by-name references.
There was also no mention of Europe last night, which twelve years ago was the third-highest trending word in the debate. This is especially relevant in the context of Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite the support received from allies in both wars and the prominence of NATO’s role in Afghanistan now, NATO was not mentioned a single time in this debate. In 2000 it came up fifteen times in the course of three debates.
Other proportions seem odd. Mali’s name was spoken five times with regard to the emergent terrorist threat there, while Yemen and Somalia only received mention in passing despite our existent military presence there for the same reasons. Though the last combat troops were declared withdrawn from Iraq over a year ago, that country was still mentioned more times than Afghanistan. Interestingly, this is a repeat of the 2008 foreign policy debate, in which Iraq out-mentioned Afghanistan by a margin of 35 to 33. Though the fear of nuclear proliferation drove much of the conversation, North Korea was only mentioned once.
There are indications that the United States’ foreign policy dialogue has been gradually yet increasingly laced with the vocabulary of fear and force. "9/11" still found its way into the debate on three occasions, while "Arab Spring" only came up once. The word "threat" was used ten times in three debates in 2000. In the 2008 foreign policy debate it surfaced 17 times. It was uttered 25 times last night. It appears that "nuclear" is the only type of threat the candidates cared to discuss. It came up 38 times during the debate, compared to only one mention apiece of cyber and space (both by the President, neither of which he elaborated on). "Military" was mentioned 49 times compared to 56 twelve years ago. Forms of "diplomacy" came up only one-fifth as many. Curiously, in the context of the looming sequestration threat, references to defense and military spending were approximately the same — six times in 2000 versus seven times in this debate.
Still other causes for concern exist when last night’s potent potables are considered in light of this decidedly economy-driven election. The word "economy" came up 25 times; the same number of mentions as "threat." But if economics are so tied to American foreign policy concerns, there is a perplexing absence of certain countries in the discussion. Mexico has already been mentioned, but India, Argentina, Japan, Germany and South Korea join it in the cast of unmentionables.
In all, the debate primarily revolved around American preoccupation with fears of imminent danger and hostility. The candidates spoke to the issues in a distinctly martial dialect. The prevalence of key terms and the glaring omission of others leads one to wonder if the candidates believe politics is the conduct of war by other means. Both candidates are certainly knowledgeable about countries and issues beyond those discussed, but their time was limited. With that said, it is a rational conclusion that the debate was limited to those items perceived as most important to the American public consciousness. Such being the case, this debate was a disconcerting indication that Americans’ fixation with bayonets is more troubling than it appears.
Mike Gore is a Journalism and Communications Student at Western Washington University. Jim Gourley is Best Defense’s number one commenter.