washingtonpost.com
The Debate We Want to Hear

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Post asked foreign affairs analysts and other experts for their take on what the candidates should discuss in the first debate. Here are thoughts from: David M. Walker, Karen Donfried, Michael O'Hanlon, Patrick Clawson, Ronald D. Asmus, Stephen P. Cohen, David Makovsky, Michael Rubin, Nancy Soderberg, Danielle Pletka, Michael J. Green

DAVID M. WALKER

Former comptroller general of the United States, president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation

The conditions that led to our current financial turmoil are also present in connection with the federal government's finances. Unfortunately, the stakes for the government are even higher and no one will "bail out America" if we don't get our fiscal house in order. If we don't act before too long, we could see a "super subprime crisis" in the future. Absent a crisis or preventative measures taken to avoid one, we are on track to pass huge and escalating burdens to our children and grandchildren, which is morally wrong.

Will you make fiscal responsibility and intergenerational equity a priority if you are elected?

Do you support the creation of a capable, credible and bipartisan "Fiscal Future Commission" to make budget, entitlement, spending and tax reform recommendations to you and the next Congress for an up or down vote (like the Base Realignment and Closure Commission)?

What key terms and conditions do you think need to be incorporated in the government's rescue package to protect the taxpayers and not reward irresponsible behavior by private-sector parties?

Are you prepared to form a coalition cabinet and will you announce some of your top choices before the election?

KAREN DONFRIED

Executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

Whether the issue is bringing stability to Afghanistan or dealing with an aggressive Russia, European publics express skepticism about U.S. leadership and policy. The Iraq war and the financial crisis are the clearest manifestations of what Europeans see as waning U.S. power in the world. Yet the United States needs allies. How would each candidate obtain greater European contributions to a stepped-up NATO effort in Afghanistan that both men advocate? How would Sen. Obama translate the outpouring of European support for his candidacy into concrete cooperation? Long before the crisis in Georgia, Sen. McCain said that, if elected, he would push to exclude Russia from the Group of Eight industrialized nations because of Russia's bullying of its democratic neighbors and its curtailment of domestic political freedoms. How would he win European support for this position given the strong preference for engagement over isolation?

MICHAEL O'HANLON

Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of Opportunity '08, a bipartisan effort to raise awareness about policy issues

Neither candidate has given the issue of North Korea its due, and this week brought the latest round in a worsening crisis. North Korea probably quadrupled its nuclear holdings during the Bush presidency. It tested a warhead in the fall of 2006 -- and has now stated that it will no longer dismantle nuclear infrastructure that could produce fissile material for even more warheads. Frustrated by Washington's unwillingness to remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, and perhaps thrown into internal chaos by Kim Jong Il's purported ill health, it is reverting to classic hard-line behavior. The progress achieved over the past two years could soon be squandered.

Should we swallow our concerns about Pyongyang's suspected uranium enrichment program (and its nuclear cooperation with the likes of Syria), content ourselves with its declarations about its plutonium stockpiles, and remove it from the terrorism list to get talks back on track? What is our long-term strategy for getting North Korea to surrender the eight or so bombs it has, if that goal is practical and necessary?

PATRICK CLAWSON

Deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, co-author of "The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action Against Iran"

Russia and China are on a different page from us about Iran (and are not that well disposed toward us in general). For all the fine words from our European allies, they have done little to step up the pressure on Iran outside the U.N. framework. The only way to get help from Europe and Russia may be to put Iran at the top of our agenda. Is Iran that important? Put another way: How important is the risk that an Iranian nuclear breakout will lead to many more nuclear states, not least in the Middle East?

Should the United States state clearly that if necessary it will use force to preempt Iran from getting nuclear weapons, or is deterrence a better policy than preemption?

What are U.S. priorities with Russia? Should we be willing to accommodate Moscow on issues like Georgia if the Kremlin agrees to be helpful on issues such as Iran?

How can we structure talks with Iran in such a way as to serve U.S. interests, rather than strengthening the hard-line regime?

RONALD D. ASMUS

Oversees strategic planning for the German Marshall Fund of the United States, deputy assistant secretary of state for European affairs in the Clinton administration

Support for American leadership in Europe is at a historic low. NATO is a shadow of its former self. As president, what specifically would you do to restore America's leadership and its most important alliance relationship with Europe?

Russia's illegal invasion of Georgia sent shock waves through the West. Does the West need a new policy to deal with a more aggressive Moscow? As president, what would be your policy toward Russia?

NATO enlargement has enjoyed the support of successive presidents, both Democratic and Republican, since the early 1990s. Should the United States continue to support the enlargement of NATO, given Russia's recent aggression? If Georgia had been a member of NATO, would the United States have gone to its defense?

STEPHEN P. COHEN

Senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, author of "The Idea of Pakistan"

Eighty percent of our supplies for Afghanistan go through Pakistan, and the Iranians were very cooperative early on in the fight against the Taliban. The Bush administration policy in fighting the Taliban -- in line with Sen. Obama's proposal -- is to send U.S. forces into Pakistan, perhaps without notice to the Pakistanis as to the time and place of the attack. We have come to distrust the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, to the point where we believe that it leaked plans about our earlier raids to the intended targets -- and we have also implicated it in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul. Given the meager results of the last few U.S. raids (and reported firing on American helicopters by Pakistani security forces), would you continue this policy? Do you believe the fragile Zardari government can survive public rage at what is seen as an attack on Pakistani sovereignty? If you would continue the raids, do you appreciate that this runs the risk of Pakistani retaliation, perhaps by cutting our access to Afghanistan? Would you then consider going to the Iranians to secure an alternative route to Afghanistan so that we can reinforce our forces (and NATO's) in that country?

DAVID MAKOVSKY

Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

Israeli and Palestinian leaders have spent more time discussing the final contours of a peace plan since last November's Annapolis conference than ever before. Key territorial differences have been narrowed. Yet important gaps remain. How high of a priority is it to keep Annapolis alive? Is there a better approach? How could the United States persuade the Israeli and Palestinian publics not to be deterred by past setbacks and to believe again that diplomacy can produce results?

More broadly, how should the United States reach out to Arab states to support peace? The Arab states usually say that they endorsed an Arab initiative in 2002 that offers Israel diplomatic recognition once Israel yields all the territories it won in the 1967 war; many Israelis insist that is insufficient, as they are more vulnerable to rocket fire having already withdrawn from Gaza and Lebanon. How can we approach the Arab states to use their unique position to delegitimize the radicals who seek to torpedo peace?

Some say the Bush effort on Middle East democratization was futile because elections only bring into office Islamists who are hostile to the United States. Others say that the program should not be shelved but, perhaps, modified to focus more on establishing the foundation of liberal institutions. What's the best way to proceed?

MICHAEL RUBIN

Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

The Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs will remain challenges for the next administration. Iran continues to enrich uranium despite three U.N. Security Council resolutions, and North Korea announced this week that it is resuming work at its plutonium processing plant. North Korea was also allegedly responsible for helping Syria construct a covert nuclear facility that the Israeli Air Force destroyed in a strike last September. It is all well and good to say that you favor diplomacy, but what actions will you take if diplomacy does not succeed? What evidence will you look for both to determine that diplomacy is working or, conversely, that it is failing?

NANCY SODERBERG

White House deputy assistant to the president for national security affairs in the Clinton administration, co-author of "The Prosperity Agenda: What the World Wants From America and What We Need in Return"

The debate questions, regardless of their topic, are less important than the zingers the candidates must deploy -- prepared answers calculated to address lingering fears of their respective weaknesses. Obama critics think he is too eager to negotiate and go first to the U.N. McCain detractors say he is another reckless George Bush who will restart the Cold War. Thus, Obama must demonstrate that he is capable of a puffy-chest moment ("You're damn right I will not bother to ask Pakistan for permission to kill bin Laden.") while McCain must convey that he knows it sometimes takes more political courage to negotiate than to fight. So, let's hear them:

Assuming you both would be tough negotiators, at what point would each of you consider using force to protect Georgia and to prevent a nuclear Iran? How do you know when to give up on talks and resort to military force?

DANIELLE PLETKA

Vice president for foreign and defense policies studies at the American Enterprise Institute

Barack Obama has said that he opposes the Iraq war, opposes the surge and wishes to withdraw troops on a specific timeline regardless of our success on the ground or the views of our commanders. He has said that he wants to sit down with the Iranian leadership and negotiate without preconditions, a position rejected by America's allies in Europe. He has also suggested that the United States should threaten to and possibly attack Pakistan for harboring al-Qaeda. Each of these positions can be explained in a vacuum, but together they add up to a confusing picture of how President Obama would defend America against enemies abroad. How would he weave together or reconcile these disparate views and explain to the American people the principles that underpin his national security policy?

MICHAEL J. GREEN

Senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council from January 2004 to December 2005 and an adviser to the McCain campaign

The great unanswered question so far this election is how the United States should respond to the rise of Asia. McCain has called for engaging China on the many areas of overlapping interests we have with Beijing, while strengthening our alliance ties with Japan, Korea and Australia to maintain a balance of power that reinforces our values and is reassuring for the rest of the region. Obama says that he wants to restore our alliances, but he has led the charge against the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement. The Korean trade minister warned that if Congress scuttles the FTA, "no country in Asia will trust you to do a free trade agreement ever again." That would not only undercut our ally South Korea, it would also mean ceding the field in Asia for a series of trade agreements with China that exclude the United States.

What do the candidates plan on doing to keep America engaged in Asia and our alliances strong?

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company