10/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

That Foreign Policy Debate We're Not Having

After easily winning its war with Georgia, Russia makes a big move into Latin America and the Caribbean with this tightening alliance with Venezuela.

Let's face it. This has been a disappointing campaign. Two very interesting candidates. Some of the biggest issues going, both within and without the US, and they have to blow up in our faces to get much attention. Then there's the ridiculous media coverage. Which brings us to tonight's foreign policy debate, which is finally back on.

Part of the problem is what it's called. Because foreign policy is not "foreign," it's geopolitics. The underlying essential dynamics of geopolitics deeply affect domestic politics. In the flows of energy and capital and products and people, in our military budget, in our environment, and in flash-point electoral politics. When there is debate, we end up debating symptoms -- illegal immigration from Mexico, a surge in Iraq -- rather than systems.

There's the question of fast-emerging China, which increasingly builds the products we buy, affecting our manufacturing base and balance of trade. And which increasingly finances our debt, giving us the money to buy our oil and making our financial system vulnerable in still more ways than we are grappling with today. At least China is getting some attention. Thanks to its hosting of the Olympics, of course.

Increasingly troubled Mexico has received little attention this year. Last year it was much in the news, when John McCain in his old party maverick mode worked with Ted Kennedy for a comprehensive immigration bill that conservative Republicans -- and not a few working class Democrats -- called an amnesty program. But the flow of Mexican immigrants, mostly illegal, across the US border, is only one aspect. Another is the rising power of drug cartels. Increasingly bold in attacking government forces, they may in the not distant future threaten the Mexican state itself.

Add to these matters and more two central geopolitical phenomena. One we've been grappling with in a front range manner since 9/11: Islamic extremism. The other which has suddenly snuck up on most people, though its's been clear to some of us for the past few years: Russian resurgence. They're both linked, in that Russia has a role to play in dealing with Islamic extremism.

How dangerous is Al Qaeda Prime, the cadre which hit us on 9/11, not the affiliate which sprung up in Iraq after the fall of Saddam? It's surprising to me that the Democrats haven't made Osama bin Laden more of an issue in this election. Through some bungled moves, he was allowed to slip away seven years ago.

Al Qaeda succeeded in permanently disrupting American life and in luring the US into a fateful entanglement in the heart of the Middle East. But it's failed in overturning Arab regimes and establishing a caliphate. It hasn't pulled off a major attack in a few years.

In rooting it out of Afghanistan, we took on major responsibilities in a country which has resisted outside military forces, including the British and Soviet empires, for centuries. The war there is not going well, and John McCain and President Bush are finally agreeing with Barack Obama that more troops and a different approach are needed. But what is enough? Is anything enough? Or do we need to find some reasonable Taliban? The Red Army couldn't handle the country with 120,000 of its troops. Of course, we were on the other side, funding "Charlie Wilson's war." (Bill Casey's, too.)

Are Persian Gulf economies even more powerful with the Wall Street crisis?

Bin Laden, along with top Taliban leaders, fled from Afghanistan to Pakistan, which has been harboring Al Qaeda and Taliban cadres for years, despite the billions we've given to Pakistan and claims otherwise. The world's only Islamic nuclear power is a tinderbox, with Islamic extremists knit throughout the society, as we've seen with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the instability of most institutions other than the army.

Like Afghanistan, Pakistan has gone south during the Bush/Cheney years. How do we pursue our goal of tamping down Islamic extremism and rooting out Al Qaeda without triggering a nightmare scenario?

John McCain nearly pulled out of tonight's debate on foreign policy and national security.

Obama has won the debate on the wisdom of going into Iraq. McCain has won the debate on the surge. Not surprisingly, as the much maligned-on-the-neocon right Iraq Study Group forecast, when you put strong military forces into an area, insurgents tend to melt away. But the surge has already hit its high-water mark and the situation is still somewhat fragile, and heavily dependent on other political factors.

Such as Iran. This nettlesome country was happy to see Saddam fall. That made Iran more powerful, especially inside Iraq, where it's been both very unhelpful and sometimes quite helpful to the US, as with Muqtada al-Sadr. If we take the extremist religious rhetoric of some of the mullahs seriously, and consider they might develop a nuclear weapon, Iran is very scary indeed. How many grains of salt, if any, should be applied?

Israel, which deeply fears and dislikes Iran, is in deep political turmoil. The Palestine question is as unsettled as ever. And the Russian resurgence is making it less clear that Israel is as staunch a US ally as always assumed.

The Russia-Georgia War cast many things in a new light. Georgia had a tight alliance with Israel, which provided it with weaponry and major military assistance. After the Russians quickly shattered the Georgian armed forces, Israel, one of the world's largest arms dealers, agreed with Russia that it would not provide the Georgians with new arms. And it is apparently staying out of the post-Soviet space around Russia entirely.

What does Russia want? That's one of the most important questions in the world. Naturally, it's not being posed in this presidential campaign.

When McCain's friend Mikheil Saakashvili kindly provided Vladimir Putin with the rationale he wanted to invade Georgia, more people became aware of how angry Russia is with the long-standing US policy of expanding NATO to the Russian border. Georgia was on track for NATO membership. The operative word being "was." The proposed anti-missile shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, ostensibly aimed at Iran, is seen as another anti-Russian move by the US. As is the move to extend NATO membership to Ukraine. The seemingly pro-US Ukrainian government is presently splitting apart, not that you're hearing anything about that.

Instead of being isolated for its actions in Georgia, as McCain -- "We are all Georgians now" -- forecast, Russia is becoming more expansive. It's beginning for the first time to participate with OPEC. Syria has offered it a permanent naval base in the Middle East. Iran wants its highest-end anti-aircraft systems. Israel is playing nice. And, in the old manner of turnabout-as-fair-play, in a message to Washington, it's getting very active again in Latin America. Tightening its alliance with fellow oil power Venezuela, sending a squadron of the Russian Navy to conduct maneuvers in the Caribbean for the first time since the Cold War.

And it's business as usual for Russia with Europe. The European Union met about the Georgian war, and issued a sharply-worded press release, imposing no sanctions. NATO huffed and puffed about dissolving the NATO-Russia Council. But NATO has no expeditionary forces. And the truth is that Germany and France are in business with Russia and don't want a confrontation.

Sarah Palin discusses Russia.

Russia can be unhelpful to the US, as we're seeing. Or it can be helpful, as it has been in Afghanistan, where Russian expertise and contacts with proxy forces helped take down the Taliban regime in the aftermath of 9/11. If Iran is to be blocked from having a real nuclear weapons program, Russian assistance is important, just as it is important that Russia not provide Iran with state-of-the-art defensive weapons systems.

After 9/11, Russia allowed US bases the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. The US for a time was making further inroads in this oil and gas-rich region. Now Russia is rolling that back. And only one US base remains, in mountainous Kyrgyzstan. A base that is important to the effort in Afghanistan.

Which candidate understands these issues and how they fit together? Besides Sarah Palin, of course. (A little joke.)

Which candidate has a strategy for America in this new world disorder?

We are getting very little idea from the campaign as it's being waged by the campaigns -- and covered by the news media.

And tonight, even though geopolitics is officially on the menu, with the epic financial crisis bearing down on us, I suspect we won't get much more of an idea than we've had.