The Real Takeaways From Monday’s Debate

Five experts weigh in on how the candidates measure up.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Kenneth Lieberthal on China:

Kenneth Lieberthal on China:

During Monday night’s foreign-policy debate, both candidates sounded the same three themes on China. First, there is no inherent conflict between the United States and China and there is the potential for a great partnership in the future (Republican nominee Mitt Romney was surprisingly expansive on this, though President Barack Obama did label China an "adversary" for the first time). Second, to realize this partnership, China must stop cheating on the rules in economics and trade — stealing intellectual property, counterfeiting goods, etc. And third, how effectively America handles its own domestic problems will have a major impact on the long-term U.S. relationship with China.

These have been Obama’s themes in one form or another throughout his first term and this campaign. On Romney’s side, they reflect his decision in this debate to project himself as a moderate — one who will not lead the United States into a new war, who recognizes the need to win over support abroad through aid and diplomacy, and who has the character and good judgment to be president. In short, Romney was prepared to allow very little daylight between himself and Obama in a bid to allay fears about where he would lead America abroad — and this was particularly evident in the discussion of China.

Romney’s one serious mistake was in reiterating his determination to declare China a "currency manipulator on Day 1." This is a campaign position that makes no sense. First, the governor is 4-5 years too late — at 2.1 percent of GDP for the first half of 2012, China’s current account surplus  is well below the 4 percent level that the United States argues should be the global standard for what is troubling. Second, dozens of countries, including Switzerland and Israel, use government action to influence the value of their currency — but the United States has never declared any of them to be a "currency manipulator." Third, the designation is gratuitous. All it would mandate is that the United States engage in intensive negotiations with China on its currency policy, something America has done for years. This designation does not increase the president’s authority to impose tariffs. Fourth, contrary to the governor’s assertion, China’s incoming new leader, Xi Jinping, will feel compelled to take strong countermeasures if Romney approves this designation. Xi will feel he must show Romney that this is a very bad way to elicit Chinese cooperation; he also must show his own countrymen that he will not begin his term by caving in to U.S. bullying. The risk of a trade war developing out of this gratuitous action is thus very real. By any reasonable cost-benefit calculation, "designating China a currency manipulator on Day 1" is a big loser.

More broadly, Romney reiterated in this debate that he is committed to increasing defense spending to at least 4 percent of GDP. He has previously linked that to the U.S. posture in Asia and argued that our friends and allies there think the U.S. pivot to Asia lacks substance. Our allies and friends in Asia do worry about the nature and sustainability of our commitment to the region, but arbitrarily raising the defense budget will likely worsen rather than reduce their concerns. That’s for two reasons. First, their biggest worry is that the United States will fail to get on top of its fiscal deficit, thus undermining the long-term U.S. economic strength that underpins our ability to deal with China in Asia. Arbitrarily and significantly increasing defense spending will likely sharpen this concern. Second, they do not want a Cold War to develop between the United States and China that will force them to make a very unwelcome choice between the two — and thus their critique to date is that the U.S. pivot to Asia has been too provocative and unbalanced in that it has overstressed military moves to the relative neglect of diplomatic and economic/trade initiatives. Romney’s debate performance will hit the wrong nerve on this issue.

Obama’s brief criticism of Romney for investing in China continues a theme that does not do the president proud. Bain’s and Romney’s investments in China are not evil; they are reasonable decisions, given the rules and incentives in our system. To change the outcome, it is necessary to change the rules (or the prices in the market).

One of the biggest factors shaping future U.S.-China relations was very much the focus of the debate — that is, the long-term credibility of the U.S. economic recovery and policies to bend the curve on our fiscal deficit. The attention to this issue, within the overall focus on the three points noted above, made this brief and extremely superficial discussion of China somewhat higher quality than the presidential campaign has produced before tonight. There were few differences between the two candidates on China in this debate — which reflects Romney’s movement, at least for the evening, sharply in the direction of Obama’s basic strategy.

Kenneth Lieberthal is senior fellow in the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution. He served as the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia during U.S. President Bill Clinton’s administration. 

Ted Piccone on Latin America:

Not surprisingly, neither candidate had anything substantive or new to say in any of the debates about our closest neighbors. Why does Latin America and the Caribbean rank so low in the foreign-policy agenda of either party?

Latin America, of course, is made up of diverse countries developing at different speeds. In general, however, the 32 countries of the hemisphere are growing at an above-average rate, due largely to Asia’s growing demand for its natural resources. The United States has generally fared well in trade and investment terms, with exports doubling since 2000 under a web of free trade agreements promoted by both parties. Getting Congress to approve trade pacts with Colombia and Panama in 2011 was a major breakthrough.

From a trade and jobs point of view, President Barack Obama was right to push Congress to act.  The United States already exports more to the region than to Europe, twice as much to Mexico as to China, and more to Chile and Colombia than to Russia. More exports means more good jobs in the United States. America’s energy security is also in play: A third of U.S. oil imports come from our neighbors and Canada is our No. 1 supplier, reducing our dependence on the Middle East. On the downside, America’s share of the region’s market has declined significantly in the last decade, with China and Europe stepping in with cheap goods and favorable terms. So Republican nominee Mitt Romney is to be applauded for touting the idea to promote trade even further (though he may exaggerate the upside).

While both candidates, not surprisingly, call for expanded trade with the region, neither has a clear diplomatic or political roadmap for achieving it. Ever since 2003, when Brazil torpedoed Bill Clinton’s vision of a free trade area of the Americas, the United States has pursued a series of smaller agreements that, while helpful, leave wide swaths of the region’s growing markets (mainly Brazil) up for grabs. Domestic constituencies in the labor and human rights movements fought hard for years to block the agreement with Colombia. Other sectors that could be hurt by reduced subsidies (think corn and cotton industries) and competition (think trucking) are quick to mobilize their friends in Congress to slow things down.

So the trade agenda with Latin America, because it plays to both candidates’ arguments about reviving the economy, does at least get a nod. Otherwise, except for the obligatory teeth-baring toward Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers, the region is simply ignored. That’s because the big issues on the agenda between the United States and the region — drugs, guns and crime, migration, and Cuba — all touch on hotwired domestic political issues that leave little room for winning votes.

Latin America is a nuclear-free zone of peace with small militaries, democratizing politics, and liberalizing economies. But its societies are riven by violent crime, drug trafficking, and guns.  The United States is a responsible party on all these issues. We buy the cocaine, methamphetamines, and marijuana that flow across our borders, and we sell the weapons that fuel the traffickers’ gruesome attacks. To tackle these challenges, any president must spend some hefty political capital to make the case for a new strategy geared more toward public health treatments for drug addiction, reduced penalization for minor drug possession, and serious restrictions on gun trafficking from north to south. He would need to take on the gun lobby, the prisons lobby, and the "tough-on-crime" politicians. Easier said than done.

On immigration, the candidates face angry voters who see migrants from Mexico and Central America as aliens who are after decent jobs and free public benefits. Romney played his hand in the primaries, embracing a get-tough approach that may well cost him the election if Latinos come out and vote in bigger numbers. Meanwhile, Obama has walked a fine line between tough enforcement and record deportations of migrants, on the one hand, and ordering legal residency for children of illegal immigrants under certain conditions, on the other. Comprehensive reform, however, remains unfinished business that will demand a heavy lift by the White House.

And then there is Cuba, which happened to get the moderator’s opening line about the 50th anniversary of the nuclear missile crisis. How fitting, since U.S. policy remains stuck in a Cold War time warp. To break that logjam, the next president will need to raise his sights beyond electoral politics and calculate that direct engagement with an evolving Cuba will protect America’s national interests better than embargoes and isolation. While Cuba’s system remains tightly controlled, it is opening new doors to liberalize the economy, religious freedom, and travel for its citizens. This should be enough to allow the White House to go beyond Obama’s initial steps to liberalize travel and remittances for Cuban Americans by further supporting Cubans’ independence from the state and thereby securing his historic legacy. It would also win kudos from our partners throughout the region — all of whom ridicule the embargo — and help restore American credibility around the world. He will, however, have to contend with the noisy and well-financed hardliner factions in Florida and New Jersey that want an abrupt and destabilizing collapse of the Cuban regime. It can be done if the next president has the wisdom and the courage to take Latin America seriously.

Ted Piccone is senior fellow and deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings.

Bruce Riedel on Af-Pak:

Barack Obama’s much-maligned Afghanistan-Pakistan policy was eloquently and persuasively defended in the final debate by Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Whatever past reservations Romney had about the president’s position were dropped. If you don’t like Obama’s policy, sorry folks: You have no one to vote for in November.

Romney argued that the "surge" in American and allied troops over the last four years has been successful — it bought time to build up Afghan forces to roughly 350,000 strong today, and the transition to Afghan-led military operations should proceed on time in 2014. That is the essence of the president’s plan.

In Pakistan, Romney supported the use of drones against al Qaeda targets. Obama has used them some 300 times in four years. Romney also argued that Pakistan is too important not to engage with. It has more than 100 nuclear weapons, a fragile internal political balance, and is under threat from extremism. It will be a larger nuclear power than Britain in the near future. He did not advocate reducing aid, although he did suggest it be more conditional. In the last decade, America has disbursed more than $25 billion of aid to Pakistan, half on Obama’s watch. The president has tried to get more of it to the civilians in Pakistan to build a healthier state.

Both hinted at their deep concerns about Pakistan. Obama said that if he had asked for Pakistani permission to send in the SEALs to kill Osama bin Laden, "we would not have gotten it," implying that the al Qaeda leader would have gotten away and would still be alive today. Romney worried about the role of Pakistan’s top intelligence service, the ISI, in abetting terror.

Neither answered the question: What would you do if the transition in Afghanistan falters as we get closer to the end of 2014? That is understandable. American options will be lousy but the stakes will be significant. It would be a grim problem. The president did not point out that he is committed to a long-term strategic relationship with the Kabul government after 2015, but he also did not repeat his formula that the war in Afghanistan will end in 2014. It won’t. He stressed a responsible road ahead and disparaged reckless behavior.

Obama inherited a disaster from George W. Bush in Afghanistan and Pakistan four years ago. The Taliban was on the march across Afghanistan, and al Qaeda was under little or no pressure in Pakistan. Bin Laden had moved into his comfortable hideout in Abbottabad some three years earlier. We had no idea where he was.

The situation today is far from perfect, but we are no longer on the edge of strategic failure and catastrophe. It must have been satisfying for Obama to hear his Republican opponent acknowledge the progress.

The two also failed to mention the most important country in the region: India. That is because there is a bipartisan consensus in America that we need a strong strategic partnership with New Delhi as we confront the many challenges in Asia in the years ahead. While it would have been nice to hear that consensus reaffirmed in the debate, the truth is no one disputes it. That is a rare area of bipartisan harmony.

Bruce Riedel is author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.

Justin Vaïsse on Romney’s "Come Home, America" moment:

The striking thing about Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s position in this third presidential debate was how much he retreated from the military assertiveness he seemed to have embraced so far. Of course, he reaffirmed his support for a strong military and for increasing the defense budget. But consider this:

Romney did not call for a no-fly zone in Syria, as many hawks like Max Boot have suggested. He did not call for Congress to pre-authorize military action in Iran, as some of his neoconservative advisers like Elliott Abrams have advocated. He didn’t criticize Obama for relying excessively on drone strikes instead of human operations, a choice that hampers the collection of intelligence by obliterating sources of information, as many critics of the president like Charles Krauthammer have rightly charged. He didn’t qualify his endorsement of the 2014 deadline in Afghanistan by saying that he would consider the situation on the ground and ask the generals, like he had before.

Instead, Romney insisted that America’s purpose "is to make sure the world is peaceful. We want a peaceful planet…  I want to see peace… We don’t want another Iraq. We don’t want another Afghanistan." As for military action, it is "the last resort. It is something one would only, only consider if all of the other avenues had been tried to their full extent."

Even taking into account his objective of avoiding attacks on his warmongering (a useless precaution, it turned out, because Obama attacked him on his changes in opinion instead), these were very revealing statements.

As for Obama, he repeated no less than four times his usual point about nation-building, which he says should now be done at home, and reminded voters countless times that he had extracted America from Iraq and was transitioning out of Afghanistan.

Taken together, these positions are the surest sign of the changing mood in America. A year ago, Romney made the strategic decision to attack Obama on his weakness, embracing a neoconservative agenda that seemed to revert to George W. Bush’s adventurism. It was always a gamble because of Obama’s strong credentials in national security, and because a large part of his own electorate no longer has any appetite for foreign interventions (see here and here). He now seems to have changed his strategy to adapt to this anti-interventionist mood.

Since politicians have every incentive not to get it wrong when it comes to reading public opinion, this is a powerful reminder that America is now in that part of its foreign-policy cycle where its mood is geared toward, if not isolationism, then at least introversion, not unlike when George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic candidate who died on the day before that third debate, campaigned on a clear slogan about the Vietnam war: "Come Home, America."

This doesn’t mean that Washington will suddenly withdraw from its military commitments or that it won’t launch foreign interventions in the next four years. But it does tell us something about America’s reluctance to use force abroad in a meaningful way — including under a President Romney.

Justin Vaïsse is director of research of the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution and the co-author with Jonathan Laurence of Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France. 


Suzanne Maloney: Not Enough Frank Discussion of Iran

It was probably too much to expect that a presidential debate focused on foreign policy might offer a reasonable, realistic discussion of an issue as complex and intractable as the threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. After all, in this campaign, perhaps more than any previous one, the debates have been won and lost on the basis of style rather than substance, thanks in large part to President Barack Obama’s somnolent performance in the first faceoff last month.

And so it should not be surprising that the issue of Iran — which has been high on the agenda of both the president and his Republican challenger Mitt Romney throughout the course of the campaign — elicited a spirited discussion among the two candidates. At the same time, the discussion failed to deliver a frank discussion of the painful choices that may confront the next administration in dealing with what Romney described as the most urgent threat facing America today: Iran’s nuclear program. Obama and Romney indulged in a show of tough-and-tougher, each seeking to outflank his rival in showing his determination to preclude Tehran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Both candidates embraced the mantra of sanctions on Iran — preferably bigger, better, bolder, and faster — without conceding the discernible disconnect, at least to date, between international economic pressure on the Iranian regime and any evidence that Tehran is prepared to undertake a meaningful reconsideration of the nuclear program or its security posture overall.

Meanwhile, hanging in the backdrop was the blockbuster revelation, published only days before in the New York Times, of post-election plans for unprecedented direct talks between the two long-time adversaries. This received only a carefully parsed brush-off from President Obama, who denied the story, and a curious disregard from Governor Romney. Still, Obama’s later allusion to bilateralism and his assertion that "there is a deal to be had" with Tehran on the nuclear issue suggests that his administration sees brighter prospects for diplomacy on Iran than has previously been presumed. A reader of tea leaves might point out that the president’s brief description of such a deal made no specific reference to the contentious issue of ending Iran’s enrichment entirely. Unfortunately, however, Romney appeared unable or unwilling to offer his own vision of what might constitute an acceptable diplomatic resolution of the nuclear crisis.

Instead, consistent with his campaign rhetoric to date, Romney sought to use the issue of Iran to demonstrate the president’s supposed weakness on foreign policy. For the Republican candidate, Tehran’s continuing defiance of United Nations Security Council demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program reflects the erosion of American coercive credibility during the past four years, and clear evidence of Obama’s failure to stem the country’s most urgent threats. The president countered with a forceful defense of his record, emphasizing the breadth and depth of international economic pressure that has been imposed on Tehran under his leadership, and detailing the devastating impact that these measures have had on the Iranian economy.

Both candidates adopted slightly more robust formulations of their standard rhetoric on Iran: Obama insisted that Iran must end its "nuclear program," which — presumably inadvertently — contradicts the formal U.S. position that Iran may retain nuclear power generation and other purely civilian nuclear applications. For his part, Romney, whose campaign advisors have struggled to sustain a public consensus on the specifics of the governor’s position toward Iran, came down clearly on the side of capabilities — rather than actual weapons — as the trigger for American military action, a vague and dangerously malleable criteria.

Still, the reality is that beneath Romney’s recriminations and Obama’s rebuttal, there appears to be little meaningful difference in the two candidates’ approach to Iran. They share the same expressed objective and, for the most part, the same policy instruments. Romney endeavored to insulate himself against any attempt by the president to present him as reckless on Iran, sounding far less bellicose notes in an apparent belated recognition of the American public’s disinterest in launching yet another costly, protracted, and open-ended Middle East war. But if he succeeded in avoiding the stigma of war-mongering, Romney still failed to present an alternative strategy on Iran that would offer a credible pathway to resolving a multifaceted threat that has stymied presidents from both parties for more than three decades.

His only specific policy proposals on Iran consisted of advocating more strenuous sanctions, additional diplomatic isolation, and a push to indict Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for incitement of genocide. These are sound bites, not strategy — steps that may satisfy moral indignation but pose no serious prospect of resolving the nuclear standoff. Obama’s inner law professor seemed to be straining to ask Romney if this indictment suggested a newfound Republican endorsement of the International Criminal Court, which George W. Bush’s administration opposed. More pointedly, Romney’s focus on Ahmadinejad seems strangely obsolete, since the Iranian president has long seen his influence overshadowed by Iran’s real decision-maker, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and since Ahmadinejad is nearing the end of his second and final term in office.

The superficial nature of Romney’s assertions on Iran fit with his early, evident discomfort with the broad scope of American foreign policy; his assertiveness in earlier debates that has fueled a renewed rise in the polls appeared suspiciously close to jumpiness as the candidates sought to wade through the tortuous territory of the Middle East. Romney’s reference to Syria as Iran’s "path to the sea" — a line that was widely mocked although presumed to be a misstatement when he used it several months ago — begs the question of whether the governor has made a passing acquaintance with a map of the region in which one-fifth of the world’s oil exports still transit every day.

On Iran, the debate followed an entirely predictably course, which was profoundly regrettable. Obama’s track record may be impressive in terms of generating broad multilateral support for severe economic sanctions on Iran, but he has yet to produce real progress on stopping the centrifuges that could be used to fashion fuel for a nuclear device. The current policy can boast real achievements but it is hardly surefire or flawless. The American people deserve a thoughtful discussion on tough challenges like Iran, and they should demand the opportunity to discern what, if any, genuine differences exist among the two candidates on a matter that could easily devolve into armed conflict in the first year of the next president’s term. They didn’t get that on Monday night.

Suzanne Maloney is senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

On Oct. 24, Brookings will host a discussion on the issues raised at the final presidential debate. FP's Susan Glasser will moderate the panel, which will include Brookings Senior Fellows Robert Kagan, Suzanne Maloney, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Bruce Riedel. Martin Indyk will offer opening remarks. <p> </p>
<p> </p>
<p> Bruce Riedel is author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad. Michael O'Hanlon is co-author, along with Martin Indyk and Kenneth Lieberthal, of the new book, Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy. </p>

Justin Vaïsse is the founder and director-general of the Paris Peace Forum and the author, most recently, of Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist. Twitter: @JustinVaisse

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