The presidential debates: The unspoken assumptions behind the foreign policy topics

October 16, 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama at their first debate. (David Goldman/AP)

In their third and final debate on Oct. 22, Mitt Romney and President Obama will discuss all foreign policy. The U.S. is pretty indisputably the most powerful country in the world, and it plays a unique and uniquely important leadership role in nearly every corner of the globe, so presumably that would make for a broad discussion. But, judging by the official list of debate topics, that conversation will be a bit more focused:

Subject to possible changes because of news developments, here are the topics for the October 22 debate, not necessarily to be brought up in this order:
* America’s role in the world
* Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan
* Red Lines – Israel and Iran
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – I
* The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism – II
* The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

Atavist executive editor Charles Homans quipped that the debate topic list is “a parody of DC political class's view of foreign policy: Middle East, Middle East, Middle East and oh yeah, China.”

There are some interesting assumptions embedded in these questions. First is the near-fixation on the greater Middle East and its security issues, part of a tendency to view foreign policy as principally about protecting national security. Of course, moderators could make the natural foreign policy connection to the issue that so concerns American voters right now: the economy. But instead of a topic about the euro zone or about trade, there are four about national security.

Second is the portrayal of China. Maybe I’m reading too much into how the topic is phrased, but its emphasis on “tomorrow” and China’s “rise” seems to suggest it will revisit the old anxieties about Chinese growth leading it to displace some of America’s global dominance. That’s an important topic, but one that’s perhaps just as pressing is China’s looming economic slowdown, which could have enormous implications for the global economy -- potentially soon. That doesn't mean the debate topic is wrong, of course, but it's an interesting and suggestive choice of phrasing.

The “red lines” topic is a reference to the insistence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others that the U.S. publicly declare a clear “red line” for the point at which it will no longer tolerate Iranian nuclear efforts. The question of whether or not a “red line” would be an effective policy, and where such a line would be drawn, is clearly an important one. But it’s also a reminder of the extent to which the terms of U.S. political debate on Israel-Iran are defined by the question of if/when the U.S. should pursue military action. During last week’s vice presidential debate, it was moderator Martha Raddatz who said, “I'd actually like to move to Iran because there is really no bigger national security this country is facing.” I don't have the answer as to how you compare Iran's threat to, for example, that posed by Islamist terrorists or by Pakistan's nuclear program, which unlike Iran's already includes usable weapons. So it will be interesting to see if Iran's treatment as the categorically biggest threat continues.

The apparent assumption about Pakistan’s role in the Afghan War (“Our Longest War -- Afghanistan and Pakistan”) is less surprising, most notable perhaps for how openly we now discuss the support that some elements of the Pakistani security establishment give to Afghan insurgent groups. At the moment, there doesn't seem to be too much love lost in the U.S.-Pakistani alliance.

As for the two-parter on "The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism," it’s a little surprising to see U.S. policy toward the Middle East reduced to counter-terrorism, especially at a time when the region’s politics and economies are in such deep turmoil, its societies vulnerable to extremism and perhaps finally open to real democratization. "The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Democracy" did not make the cut.

Of course, any topic list would leave some major areas unaddressed, and it’s entirely possible that this is what voters want to hear about. It's also likely that this list will ultimately not represent the full breadth of the discussion. Still, these topics provide a small but telling window into the worldviews informing how the world’s most powerful country selects the man or woman to lead its foreign policy.

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Olga Khazan | October 16, 2012