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October 08, 2008

Foreign Policy Breadth in the Debates
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Michael Tomasky writes and Matt Yglesias and Mark Goldberg agree. 

Foreign policy in these debates means: Iraq, Iran, Israel, Afghanistan and Russia. And that’s it. China — China! — barely came up. India and Pakistan (Pakistan came up in the Afghanistan context, but wouldn’t you think that maybe the new nuclear agreement between the US and India, concluded just last week for gosh sakes, might make an appearance?). Forget Africa and Latin America of course, except the obligatory quick Darfur mention. How about Syria and Lebanon? The occupied territories (”Israel,” above, means only that both candidates have to pledge they’ll defend Israel, and then they can move on having checked that box, but as to actual discussion of the West Bank and Gaza and the peace process, nada). No questions on torture. No questions on restoring America’s standing in the world, though Obama did work in a mention of it. And so on.

I have to disagree.  The only international subject area that deserved a question and didn't get it was probably China (Also keep in mind that if we didn't have a financial crisis of historic proportions, we would have gotten more of these questions during the first debate). 

It's impossible to make debates about every issue.  So what is best to do is focus on the most prominent areas of disagreement.  We might learn something about Obama and McCain from a discussion on India or Brazil. But more realistically, the public wouldn't care that much, and since the issues haven't been as thoroughly analyzed in the political arena, you'd get two very mushy answers from the candidates that would be incredibly hard to distinguish. 

It's better to focus on the real flashpoints and then use them to infer how Obama and McCain would treat other foreign policy issues during their presidency.  If I were to walk into the debate knowing nothing about the candidates foreign policy positions I could have taken a lot out of yesterday on a broad variety of issues.  For example, I don't know exactly how McCain would deal with China during a crisis over Taiwan.  But I do know that McCain is willing to use over the top hostile rhetoric towards Russia because of Georgia.  I might not learn from the debate what McCain's position is on Syria.  But I know he won't talk to the Iranians, while Obama wants to pursue direct diplomacy.  I don't know how Obama and McCain would deal with the Middle East Peace Process.  But I do know that when it comes to Iraq McCain emphasizes primarily military aspects of foreign policy, while Obama emphasizes political reconciliation and diplomacy. 

I actually think the foreign policy sections of the debates have been very good.  There has been a healthy and rigorous argument and clear distinctions on fundamentally different approaches have been drawn.  These distinctions can be used to draw pretty sound conclusions about broader foreign policy philosophies.  And that is really the point.


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Yeah it happens frankly speaking, American politics is quite silly. Over emphasis on military might, self-description of being a 'force of good', crass patriotism are all the vices of American politics. Remember the response Tony Blair got when he said, "hand on heart, this is [i.e. Britain] is the best [or some other superlative like this] nation on earth" ? No one dared to repeat this stuff here after that......

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