Stephen M. Walt

Top ten questions you won’t hear at tonight’s debate

What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight’s debate? Before I get to that question, let’s start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are: 1. America’s role in the world 2. Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan?* 3. Red lines — Israel and Iran?* 4. The changing Middle ...

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What would I like to ask Obama and Romney at tonight’s debate? Before I get to that question, let’s start with the rather revealing list of selected topics. They are:

1. America’s role in the world

2. Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan?*

3. Red lines — Israel and Iran?*

4. The changing Middle East and the new face of terrorism

5. The rise of China and tomorrow’s world

Well, if I were European or Latin American I’d be feeling mighty dissed. No discussion of the Euro crisis? Europe was the focus of U.S. strategy for most of our history, and now it doesn’t even rate a mention in the presidential debates? NATO or Greece might make a cameo appearance here and there, but what’s striking is how the Greater Middle East and Asia dominate the list of issues.

Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa aren’t going to get much attention either, unless someone brings up Sudan or the "new face of terrorism" includes the drug war. Maybe Brazil will come up as a "rising power," but I’ll bet it doesn’t rate more than a sentence or two. Instead, Obama and Romney will be trading sound-bites over some very well-trodden ground. There’s no shortage of vexing problems to discuss, however, because the debate will center around the region that we’ve been busily screwing up ever since World War II. In a sense, it’s not really fair to ask either candidate how they would fix problems that are the work of multiple administrations and both political parties. When Marx wrote "the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living," he might have been describing the situation Obama inherited in 2009, or the problems that one of these two men will face in 2013. But since candidates always promise to be miracle workers, the intractability of these problems is not reason not to spent 90 minutes explaining how each will (not) solve them.

In any case, my crystal ball tells me this last debate will be the most rancorous and the least edifying of the three. Obama has run a rather hawkish foreign policy: intensifying the drone war against Al Qaeda and its allies, getting the United States and other key nations to tighten sanctions on Iran, escalating the war in Afghanistan, and giving Israel even more military aid and diplomatic support than his predecessors did. He even let Benjamin Netanyahu humiliate him repeatedly on the settlement issue, and just about the only thing he didn’t do was promise to attack Iran on Israel’s behalf. So Romney doesn’t have much he can really criticize, unless he just starts making things up again (which he will).

Indeed, when it comes to substance, what’s Romney going to argue? That he would have fought longer in Iraq, bombed Iran already, or killed Bin Laden deader? Hardly. The left in America might be genuinely disappointed in Obama (and with good reason), but it’s hard to attack Obama from the right without without sounding like you want to take the country into a few more wars. And that is not what most of the electorate wants to hear these days.

Given that he doesn’t have many tangible things to complain about, Romney is left trying to portray Obama either as 1) someone who doesn’t love America as much as he (Romney) does); or 2) as someone who has been too tough on U.S. allies and too soft on U.S. adversaries. But when asked to spell out specifics, Romney’s actual policy positions turn out to be close to carbon-copies of Obama’s. And the one genuine difference — Romney’s pledge to ramp up defense spending — can’t be squared with his pledge to cut taxes and balance the budget too. So instead of a wonkish discussion of real issues, we’ll got a lot of rhetorical posturing at tonight’s debate, complete with pious references to America’s special role, its glorious past, its bright future, its noble spirit, etc., etc. But if we’re lucky, neither of them will try to sing.

Second, it won’t be an edifying debate because neither candidate is going to say what they might really think about the key issues shaping policy in the Greater Middle East. Like almost all American politicians, they will try to outdo each other in affirming their "unshakeable" support for Israel (yawn), but they aren’t going to be any more candid about the other issues currently afflicting that troubled region. Will Romney argue that Obama should have tried to keep Ghaddafi and Mubarak in power, against the wishes of their people? Of course not. Can Obama explain that he supported the democracy movement in Egypt but not in Bahrain because he didn’t want to tick off Saudi Arabia? Will either candidate openly discuss the bipartisan debacle in Afghanistan, and point out that our military leaders gave very bad advice when they recommended a "surge" in 2009? I don’t think so.

Be prepared for some pretty silly conversations on China, too. According to the latest survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, U.S. citizens think the most important foreign policy issue facing the country is "protecting the jobs of American workers." Indeed, 84 percent of respondents in both parties identified this issue as important. So Romney will talk a lot about getting tough with China on trade, currency, and intellectual property, even though there’s not a snowball’s chance that he’d really launch a trade war once in office. Obama, for his part, will talk about his "pivot" to Asia, and try to convince listeners that he can somehow be China’s best friend and China’s main rival at the same time.

Bottom line: This is a debate that will tell you more about the warped nature of American politics than it will tell you about the true foreign policy challenges facing the nation.

So if I were moderator Bob Schieffer, what questions might I ask? Here’s my top-ten list of questions that I don’t expect to hear tomorrow night.

 Mr. President, Governor Romney:

1. You have both pledged to end the war in Afghanistan by 2014. But the Taliban has not been defeated, there are no peace negotiations underway, the Afghan army remains unreliable, attacks on U.S. and NATO forces by Afghan soldiers have been increasing, and the Karzai government is still corrupt and ineffective. Given these realities, was the decision to send nearly 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009 a mistake? What could we have done instead, to avoid the current situation?

2. Gentlemen: Neither of you ever served in the U.S. military. Governor Romney, you have five grown sons, and none of them has ever served either. President Obama, you have two daughters, one of whom will be eligible to enlist in four years. Have either of you ever encouraged your children to serve our nation by enlisting in the armed forces? If not, why not?

3. Both of you claim to support a "two-state" solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But since the last election, the number of Israeli settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has increased by more than 25,000 and now exceeds half-million people. If continued settlement growth makes a two-state solution impossible, what should United States do? Would you encourage Israel to allow "one-person, one-vote" without regard to religion or ethnicity — as we do here in the United States — or would you support denying Palestinians under Israeli control in Gaza and the West Bank full political rights?

4. Gentlemen: Is the United States doing enough, too little, or too much to address the threat of climate change? If you are the next president, what specific actions will you take to deal with this problem?

(Follow up: Both of you favor increased domestic energy production through new technologies such as hydraulic fracking.  But won’t lower energy prices just encourage greater reliance on fossil fuels and make the climate change problem worse?)

5. Governor Romney, President Obama: Do you agree with former president George W. Bush’s claim that terrorists want to attack America because they "hate our values?" Do you think some terrorists hate us because they angered by what they see as illegitimate U.S. interference in their own countries?

6. Do you believe Japan has a valid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? If the current dispute between China and Japan leads to a military confrontation, what would you do?

7. Both of you are men of faith, and your religions both teach that all humans are fallible. If so, then U.S. leaders must have made mistakes in their handling of foreign policy, and maybe even committed acts that were unjustifiable and wrong. Are there any other societies who have valid reason to be angry about what we have done to them? If so, how should we try to make amends?

8. The United States has the world’s strongest conventional forces and no powerful enemies near its shores. It has allies all over the world, and military bases on every continent. Yet the United States also keeps thousands of nuclear weapons at the ready to deter hostile attack.

Iran is much weaker than we are, and it has many rivals near its borders. Many U.S. politicians have called for the overthrow of its government. Three close neighbors have nuclear weapons: Pakistan, India, and Israel. If having nuclear weapons makes sense for the United States, doesn’t it make sense for Iran too? And won’t threatening Iran with an attack just make them want a deterrent even more?

(Follow up: You both believe all options should be "on the table" with Iran, including the use of military force. Would you order an attack on Iran without U.N. Security Council authorization? How would this decision to launch an unprovoked attack be different from Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941?

And finally, an individual question for each candidate:

9. Governor Romney, when you visited Great Britain last summer, you were criticized for saying that there were a number of "disconcerting things" about Britain’s management of the Games. Yet the Games turned out to be a splendid success. How did you get this one so wrong?

10. President Obama: if you could go back to 2009 and begin your term over, what one foreign policy decision would you like to take back?

I think a few questions like that would liven things up considerably, don’t you?

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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