What They Really Said
Foreign policy analysts and others share their assessments of the first presidential debate. Here are contributions from: Henry A. Kissinger, Michael O'Hanlon, Ronald D. Asmus, Michael Rubin, Nancy Soderberg, Stephen P. Cohen, Danielle Pletka, Patrick Clawson, Michael J. Green, David M. Walker, Karen Donfried, David Makovsky
HENRY A. KISSINGER
Former secretary of state and national security adviser
Iranian nuclear military capability is unacceptable for the following reasons: It would stimulate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, the most dangerous region in the world. It would strengthen Iran's capability to encourage and support jihadism. It would undermine the credibility of the international community, which has demanded that Iran not develop nuclear weapons.
To avoid this, we must determine how much time is available for diplomacy -- in other words, how close Iran is to developing nuclear weapons, and what sanctions are appropriate if diplomacy fails.
I favor strong sanctions, but before strong sanctions are invoked a diplomatic phase is important. It should be conducted on the working level including, if necessary, the secretary of state. It should not start at the presidential level. Sen. McCain accurately reflected my views on the subject of negotiations.
Senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of Opportunity '08, a bipartisan effort to raise awareness about policy issues
The discussion of North Korea was factually accurate but unsatisfying. Obama was right that a lack of attention by the Bush administration contributed to the crisis of 2002-03 and the ensuing quadrupling of North Korea's estimated nuclear arsenal. McCain was correct that high-level engagement was tried by the United States to little avail with Secretary Albright in the 1990s, not to mention former secretary Bill Perry about the same time. He was also right that we should "trust but verify" any deal with North Korea. However, the conundrum remains: How do we get North Korea to give up its bombs and, ideally, begin to reform its political and economic system (as fellow Asian communist states Vietnam and China have done)? Either we need more leverage or a greater willingness to offer incentives (assuming that military options are off the table, as both candidates seem to understand that they should be. Either we need more sticks or more carrots -- or both. I heard little along these lines from either.
I believe the right approach is to offer North Korea a much better relationship, and lots of international help to get there, if it makes necessary reforms and denuclearizes. But if Pyongyang refuses such a deal, we should try to argue to Seoul, Beijing and Moscow that tougher measures, including more restrictions on aid and investment, are required in response. Those tougher multilateral measures could in turn lead North Korea to reassess its recalcitrant, hard-line stance (as it did after the North Korean nuclear test of 2006). Other basic concepts and strategies are plausible as well, but -- to paraphrase a different part of the debate -- a strategy built on just tactics and process is not promising, and that is all we really heard from either candidate on this subject.
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
For two candidates running on their ability to bring people and countries together, there was too much "gotcha" and attempts to score cheap points. The exchanges on Iraq and Iran were utterly predictable. Neither candidate offered a really credible plan for coming to terms with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. I was struck that McCain and Obama essentially agreed on the need for a new policy to face a more aggressive Russia, on continuing NATO enlargement, and support for young democracies in Georgia and Ukraine. Obama's emphasis on the need to address America's fallen standing in the world was impressive. As an American living in Brussels, I see and feel this problem all the time. Fixing our economy and our overseas image are preconditions for the foreign policy comeback we so clearly need.
A real generational difference was clear. John McCain was the old war-horse, a veteran of Washington's national security fights invoking old wars and battles to claim he is better qualified to be president. In Obama, we glimpsed a leader from a new generation with a broader and more global outlook on the world and America's role in trying to show that he could be tough but also signaling a shift in how America can lead.
Resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
Obama's view of diplomacy appears both utopian and dangerous. Neither the Iranian nor North Korean nuclear programs are the result of too little talk; they are the result of too much. Iran built its covert enrichment program during its so-called dialogue of civilizations, a deception about which former Iranian president 's spokesman now brags. Partisanship is counterproductive. Democrats and Republicans blame each other for North Korean nuclear development, but the fault lies with the North Korean regime. Like Khatami, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong-Il set out to cheat. Desperation for diplomacy let him succeed.
Here, Washington navel-gazing hurts national security, for it transposes responsibility from Tehran and Pyongyang and assumes that blame lies in U.S. intransigence. Take Obama's identification of preconditions as a hindrance to diplomacy: Three U.N. Security Council resolutions demanded that the Islamic Republic suspend its enrichment. To waive this requirement would, in effect, cast aside these resolutions unilaterally, predetermine the outcome of negotiations and ruin the prospect that Tehran (or Pyongyang) would ever again take U.N. resolutions seriously.
Unfortunately, the American people's desire for peace is not shared by many dictators. In such a world, coercion matters as much as engagement. President Theodore Roosevelt sought to "speak softly and carry a big stick." When candidates seek, a century later, to speak softly and carry a big carrot, it is not diplomacy; it is naivete.
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"
Neither said anything very new. The debate came down to character: an effort by Obama to show he will be a steady, secure and tough on foreign policy and an effort by McCain to paint himself as the elder, wise statesman. While Obama did just that, McCain was condescending and very 20th- century.
Obama had to demonstrate he is tough enough to defend this country. He largely succeeded, declaring that if the United States has Osama bin Laden or his top-level lieutenants in our sights, "then we should take them out." McCain's efforts to paint Obama as naive -- he charged seven times that Obama doesn't "understand" the key challenges facing the country -- failed.
The Republican nominee faulted Obama's position that we should negotiate with our adversaries -- in fact, the Bush administration has done just that with Iran and North Korea. McCain said Obama was naive to call for a timetable for our troops to withdraw from Iraq -- President Bush has now set such a timetable. McCain tried to challenge Obama's position that he would attack Osama bin Laden if we had the chance -- just last week we learned the administration has decided to do exactly that.
STEPHEN P. COHEN
Senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, author of "The Idea of Pakistan"
When they finally got around to Pakistan -- it took over an hour -- it was by way of Afghanistan. McCain has been badly advised on Pakistan: He got some facts wrong. He also missed the irony that Obama's earlier suggestion that we attack camps in Pakistan has actually been adopted by the Bush administration. This has led to a far graver proposition than anyone would have imagined a year ago: We are attacking a nuclear-armed state that is now shooting back. Was Obama's argument that we needed more resources in Afghanistan trumped by McCain's declaration that we need "victory" in Iraq first? That didn't work for me.
On substance, Obama won the debate as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan were concerned, but McCain's discussion of his visits to the federally administered tribal areas and Pakistan probably carried more weight with the average viewer. This was not quite Stevenson vs. Eisenhower, but close.
Vice president for foreign and defense policies studies at the American Enterprise Institute
Obama is a capable speaker, a deft debater and a quick study. On issues that have raised doubts about his various positions on national security questions, he was able to explain in context his willingness to sit down and negotiate without preconditions with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other dictators. He was able to expand upon his desire to attack targets in Pakistan, and add nuance to the circumstances under which he would do so. He illuminated his sense of the American mission in Afghanistan, though he has clearly not contemplated the necessary strategic shifts. On Iraq, Obama was at a minimum clear in expressing his intention to withdraw American troops by a date certain, and his assumption that doing so would save money.
Unfortunately, what was missing from Obama's well-briefed presentation was a worldview that informs his disparate views about America's national security challenges. The presidency is not a defense of one's post-doctoral dissertation. Rather, leadership of the United States must be informed by a coherent worldview about how to address the threat of a belligerent Russia, a determined al-Qaeda, a menacing Iran and worse. While I now have confidence in Obama's ability to pronounce "Ahmadinejad," I remain confused about the guiding principles of a man who does not see the implications of defeat in Iraq for victory in Afghanistan and against al-Qaeda.
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"
The candidates emphasized their differences on Iran when actually they have much in common. Both agreed "we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran." Both supported reinforced diplomacy as the solution, with strengthened sanctions as the central instrument.
Even regarding the issue on which they exchanged testy words ¿ namely, engaging Iran ¿ their differences were more about how to engage rather than whether to talk. For all his pounding McCain about direct talks, Obama agreed that meetings required preparation and would not start with a presidential summit. And for all his hammering Obama about meeting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions, McCain agreed that Iran and the United States should be talking even while profound differences are unresolved.
Each made the same goof, mistaking Iran's Revolutionary Guards for Saddam's Republican Guards. More important, though, each ignored the fact that the policies they propose offer poor prospects of success. Only the true optimists, like me, still believe that sanctions and engagement can persuade Iran to postpone its nuclear ambitions, much less to abandon them. More likely, the day will come when a president will have to decide just how unacceptable is a nuclear Iran: is preemption the wiser option, or deterrence? For all the tough words, neither candidate even hinted that force was an option on the table. Until we convince Iran's leaders that America will act if need be, they will continue to believe that we will eventually tolerate the nuclear Iran we now declare to be unacceptable. That gives them little reason to change course.
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
In a 90-minute debate it is perhaps not surprising that Asia and the rise of China -- a tectonic shift in the international system -- received only elliptical attention. Still, North Korea was discussed and John McCain reminded the American people that Pyongyang has cheated on every agreement it has signed on its nuclear weapons. He made clear that while he supports diplomacy with North Korea, it would be naive for the president of the United States to sit down with Kim Jong Il without preconditions -- particularly after the North Koreans have tested nuclear weapons, transferred nuclear technology and once again begun cheating on their agreement to denuclearize.
Obama mentioned at the end of the debate that he would seek to restore our standing in the world, but his opposition to the U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement and the U.S.-India nuclear deal have threatened to undercut our standing with two of the most important democracies in Asia. America's standing in the world rests on our credibility as an ally. If we do not make the hard calls to keep our alliances strong, we will not restore our standing in the world, nor will we be positioned to deal with challenges such as North Korea.
DAVID M. WALKER
Former comptroller general of the United States, president of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation
While both candidates mentioned several factors they felt needed to be considered in connection with the financial rescue plan, neither addressed the much larger potential "super subprime crisis" represented by the large and growing structural imbalance in the federal government's finances. We need to deal with the current problem, but the candidates need to start telling us what they will do to put this country on a more prudent and sustainable fiscal path. Time is not working in our favor. Our country needs real leadership now.
Executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Both candidates mentioned Europe several times, with Obama underscoring his support for the right of Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO, and McCain wanting to expand U.S. efforts, together with our French, British and German allies, to influence Iranian behavior. Thus it was all the more surprising that neither candidate mentioned the important European contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Both agreed that we need to send more U.S. troops there to deal with the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Neither suggested we try to mobilize our allies to increase their troop commitments. Today, NATO's International Security Assistance Force has a total strength of 47,600 troops representing 40 nations. According to the NATO Web site, the four top troop contributors are the United States (17,790), Britain (8,380), Germany (3,220) and France (2,660). Two other NATO allies, Canada and the Netherlands, are engaged with U.S. and British troops in combat operations in the south of Afghanistan. Voters need to hear not only what America must do but also how each candidate will engage and inspire our allies to help us share these global burdens and responsibilities to create a more stable and peaceful world.
Director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Both made clear that the United States could not tolerate a nuclear Iran. Both made clear that Iran was a rogue state, yet both said they would engage Tehran. (McCain on talks with Iran: "there could be secretary-level and lower level meetings. I've always encouraged them.") This is at odds with the policy that characterized much of the Bush administration.
With Obama seemingly backing off his interest in meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ("Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he may not be the right person to talk to"), this focus on engagement requires clarification by both candidates before Election Day. What leverage would the United States bring to the table to secure American interests? Both candidates mentioned prospects of heightened sanctions -- what would those be? Halting imports on refined gasoline to Iran, which is dependent on the world for more than 40 percent of its needs? What would be the relationship between sanctions and engagement? What would be the timetable for such engagement? In other words, how does one structure engagement so it would not be like a basketball game where Tehran plays out the clock until it possesses nuclear weapons?