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The Debate That Never Was

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As we approach the end of the election season, let us remember that our candidates have not presented us with all we should know about how they would deal with foreign policy as president. The debate last week lacked an in-depth, nuanced, or substantive discussion of U.S. counter-terrorism strategies, the repercussions and benefits of intervention in Syria, the situation in the South China Sea, Mexico and the Drug War -- and, for the first time in a generation, climate change. In time set aside for a foreign policy discussion, the candidates resorted to discussing economic policies in order to score political points. The candidates drove the discussion -- with a lackluster moderator to thank -- focusing mainly on how to manage our military spending and come to Israel's aid in the event of an attack from Iran.

While these are undoubtedly important issues, they dominated the majority of the discussion, allowing little to no mention of our nation's role in other international affairs. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was only mentioned in Romney's criticism of Obama regarding the lack of progress (this was also the only mention of the Palestinians). Other current international issues were completely missing. Right now, in the South China Sea, Beijing's claim to a vast stretch of water has set it against Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. While analysts are saying this dispute could escalate to fully-fledged conflict, our foreign policy debate saw the subject silent.

If this debate underscores anything revealing it is that Romney does not understand the mechanisms of our armed forces (horses and bayonets notwithstanding), and his unrelenting promise to "not cut the military," even though it is one of the major components of our bloated budget. While he defaulted to the president's position on a wide range of military issues, including a hesitant approach to Syria, he repeatedly stated that he would not cut our military funding.

In one of Schieffer's better moments he asked Romney about the possibility on a no-fly zone in Syria. The candidate's response: "I don't -- I don't want to have our military involved in -- in Syria. I don't think there's a necessity to put our military in Syria at -- at this stage." In the entire debate, this was the only mention and response to a question of a no-fly zone. It demonstrated Romney's ignorance of its successes in the Kurdish region of Iraq and Bosnia in the early nineties, and recently Libya, and it also demonstrated his lack of understanding of how relatively little its implementation costs the military.

I'm not advocating a no-fly zone myself, but by its success record, it demanded more attention during the debate. The president was guilty of avoiding the subject, as well. Undoubtedly, both were too cautious of bringing it up since most Americans most likely do not want any more direct military intervention in the Middle East, even though the no-fly zone tactic was pulled off successfully in Libya only a year ago. Of course, in Libya we worked with NATO forces to implement the no-fly zone. If either the moderator or the candidates had brought this up it would have made for a far more substantive discussion on how to solve the crisis in Syria.

The candidates instead came to a consensus of "identify[ing] responsible parties" and giving them arms. Syria, like many places in the Middle East, is riddled with ethnic divisions and tensions that have fueled the fires of conflict. There was no discussion of the ethnic and religious divides in the region, or who in the Free Syrian Army might be a "responsible actor," and no mention of the repercussions for the Alawite minority should the rebels take over. Both of the candidates simply stated they would arm the rebels so as to appear that they would both keep the U.S. out of a Middle East conflict (even though we participated in the one in Libya with minimal cost). To appeal to voters, they intentionally neglected the details.

The discussion we received on Afghanistan was a reiteration of the candidates' consensus that we did not want to drag out another conflict in the Middle East. Both candidates agreed on the draw-out date of 2014 -- and on U.S. drone policy. While the latter point has been proven effective in combating terrorism, it is a tactic that demands more nuanced observation, as some have estimated that it has killed more than 800 Afghan civilians since 2002. Again, I do not advocate a change of tactics myself, only more discussion on the matter in our debates.

This debate was also the last chance for the candidates to give a substantive discussion on climate change and its global ramifications. In 2012, the US has broken 40,000 daily heat records, causing drought in nearly four-fifths of the country, the worst since the Dust Bowl and lengthy droughts of the 1950s. The moderator and the candidates did not bring up climate change or what we could do with global partners to curb its effects. They feared that bringing up environmental protection might poison voters' beliefs about their commitment to promoting job growth. It is an unfortunate correlation, but with the economy as the main talking point, climate change simply had to go amiss.

In the global climate today, it is integral to remember the candidates do not have even roughly the same foreign policy. Romney has repeatedly distanced himself from the Palestinian leadership (at one point saying they weren't interested in peace at all), will keep all of our military bases worldwide, and has surrounded himself with the same types of neoconservatives as Bush, making a war with Iran appear more likely under a Romney administration. Before casting your ballot this Tuesday on Election Day, research what the candidates have actually said and done regarding issues abroad, since you sure didn't hear what you needed to in the last debate.

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