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What Bob Schieffer can learn from the CIA.
So here’s my bet: The next president will spend a great deal of time worrying about foreign policy issues that Bob Schieffer never mentioned and voters never considered in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. And no, it’s not just because shit happens. It’s actually much worse than that. Looking at the past three elections, I found that presidential debate moderators did a surprisingly bad job of picking the foreign-policy issues that presidents later confronted in office. And here’s the really interesting part: the U.S. intelligence community did much, much better, pinpointing serious threats in their annual threat assessments.
In the 2000 election, terrorism was completely absent from all three of the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Sure, it’s tempting to put this one into the "who could have possibly known" category. That is exactly what Mitt Romney did Monday night, using this little tidbit of debate history to argue that strong militaries are necessary to defend against the unexpected.
But people did know about the growing terrorist threat before the 2000 debates and the 9/11 attacks. Not just any people. Senior people in the CIA and the FBI.
The CIA warned in both its 1999 and 2000 unclassified annual threat assessments to Congress that terrorism ranked second on the list of threats to U.S. national security. That’s right. Second. Just behind the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his 1999 testimony before a public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA Director George Tenet remarked, "there is not the slightest doubt that Osama Bin Laden, his worldwide allies, and his sympathizers are planning further attacks against us. Despite progress against his networks, Bin Laden’s organization has contacts virtually worldwide, including in the United States — and he has stated unequivocally, Mr. Chairman, that all Americans are targets." In March of 2000, six months before the first Bush-Gore presidential debate, Tenet reiterated his concerns, telling Congress again in open session that bin Laden "wants to strike further blows against America" and that the CIA believed "he could still strike without additional warning."
Tenet was not alone. The FBI declared counterterrorism its number one priority in its 1998 strategic plan, three years before 9/11 and two years before the presidential debates. But the media did not notice. The Commission on Presidential Debates did not notice. Moderator Jim Lehrer did not notice. Neither did the two presidential campaigns.
The 2004 foreign policy debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush focused, understandably, on terrorism, homeland security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the candidates also spent time responding to questions about Canadian drug imports and the draft. What was left out? A little country called China. Or more specifically, China’s breakneck economic and military rise and its increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. Here, too, the CIA was on it, flagging China’s rise in its 2004 annual threat assessment several months before the debates began. The question of how to handle China’s emergence as a rising power went on to become a major focus of President Bush’s second term, it generated Obama’s much ballyhooed "Asia pivot" earlier this year, and it remains one of the top foreign policy challenges of the foreseeable future.
The 2004 debates also never mentioned what turned out to be the mother of all foreign and domestic policy issues at the end of the Bush administration: The health of the global economy. To be fair, the global financial meltdown came as more of a surprise to economists and bankers than 9/11 did to intelligence officials. Whether the economic crisis should have been a surprise is another matter — and a reminder that economists are world class at two things: exuding confidence even when wrong and predicting the past. But I digress.
The big debate miss in 2008 was cyber security. Again, intelligence officials were sounding the alarm but the debate ignored it. The 2008 threat assessment from the CIA director’s successor, the director of national intelligence, noted that the threat from cyber attackers — which included states like Russia and China, non-state organizations like criminal syndicates and terrorist groups, and lone Cheeto-eating hackers — was large, serious, and growing fast. Yet in the three 2008 debates, John McCain and Barack Obama were never asked what they would do to protect America’s military from cyber espionage or disruption; how they would defend America’s critical infrastructure like dams, financial systems, and power grids from cyber attack; or how they would work with the private sector to stop billions of dollars of intellectual property theft that many fear could cripple America’s competitive advantage in the global economy. Since those debates, the Obama administration has been seized with cyber concerns, creating a new Pentagon Cyber Command and feverishly trying to figure out who should do what in the cyber domain. This month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta darkly warned that the United States now faces the very real prospect of a "cyber-Pearl Harbor."
Cyber security made a cameo appearance on Monday, but only because Obama mentioned it in passing. Schieffer never asked a cyber question even though cyber security threats have vaulted to number three on this year’s intelligence threat assessment. Global climate change got no mention on the debate stage at all, despite growing concerns that rising temperatures could be one of the world’s worst threat multipliers, causing water and food shortages and extreme weather events that could create humanitarian disasters and turn fragile states into failed ones and perhaps terrorist havens.
What’s gone wrong? Why are presidential debate moderators so bad at picking issues compared to the CIA and the DNI?
Two reasons. First, presidential debates are creatures of the news media, and the news media is obsessed with the news du jour. These are people trained to get scoops, write headlines, cover "the presidential horse race," and link everything they can to today’s "pegs." In the media world, faster is better and current is king. But in the real world, foreign policy threats and opportunities take time. They gather. They simmer. They bubble up and die down, reacting to the reactions of others. In the news, the devil usually lies in the details. In foreign policy, the devil often lies in the trend, understanding what looms over the horizon and how it could affect vital national interests tomorrow. The annual intelligence threat assessment is all about horizon-gazing, assessing how current events will play out over time. Presidential debate moderators are all about the here and now, how last night’s comments are playing in Ohio this morning. And that makes all the difference.
The second reason presidential debates are poor predictors of future foreign policy challenges is that our election system rewards short-term thinking. Quick wins play well with voters; longer-term strategies to fight emerging threats do not. Presidential candidates are smart people. They respond to incentives. That’s why we hear a lot about what they will do "on day one" and precious little about what they hope to put in place for 2050.
It does not have to be this way. In today’s presidential election system, candidates increasingly control what they say and how they say it — running scripted ads, attending scripted events, and reciting scripted lines. But debates are different. They are golden opportunities to press candidates to think and react, to get in front of issues rather than just staying on top of them. To work well, however, the entire debate system is in dire need of an overhaul. A good start would be for moderators to check the headlines less and the intelligence threat assessments more.