The best one could say about the presidential debate over foreign policy was that it could have been worse. In the next few days, there won't be any need for ads showing a little girl picking flowers followed by a nuclear blast. No one will be accused of being too soft on anything. But little of substance emerged that would address some of our knottiest and most important problems.
Let's get to it:
The debate itself: Bob Schieffer did himself no credit by claiming ownership of all the questions. There were some good starters, but lousy follow-up. He was probably told by either the network or the candidates or both to allow the discussion to repeatedly drift to domestic issues. This begged the question of whether there should have been a dedicated foreign policy debate at all in an era of such domestic distress. It probably would have been enough to fold foreign policy into three generic debates.
Defense Spending: Comparing our current navy to the 1917 navy is obviously silly, but so is the idea that it's big enough to address all the mission being piled on it. The problem is exacerbated by the nonsensical mismatch between missions and ship design. There was no mention of procurement, military health care, pensions, officer retention, etc., but these discussions are probably too wonky for a general debate.
Libya: The president immediately claimed credit for our great victory in Libya, as if a respite from a mad dictator is the same as a working democracy. The death of our people there was a huge tragedy, but it's not the problem. The president forgot to also claim ownership of our intelligence apparatus, which continues to stink in its analytical capabilities. Neither candidate addressed the critical weakness of the Libyan government, the regional turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring, or our general confusion about what is actually going on. Neither talked about our failure to adequately address diplomatic security.
Israel: We're now aware that we stand with Israel. Romney's response that Israel would not surprise us by attacking Iran without forewarning was a typical indicator of how shallow the discussion was. There was nothing about how to get Israel to work out the Palestinian issue, or of how Israel should interact with neighbors as the Arab Spring evolves. There is always talk about how to help Israel. What about what Israel has to do in the region while keeping our own interests in mind?
Iran: Due to the nuclear obsession, neither candidate addressed the other immediate issues, Iran's sponsorship of terrorism that has killed U.S. troops, and Iran's relentless cyber-war against us. Romney brought up our failure to support the 2009 Green Revolution, but the tendency of the Iranian people to pull together during periods of crisis makes the issue less than clear-cut.
Iraq: The situation is steadily deteriorating because our single-threaded mission got rid of a dictator without a plausible follow-up. Our most precious resource, our military, showed its mettle, but was squandered in leaving Iraq headed toward a situation that could end up as fraught as the one we found in 2003. The president was either mistaken or blatantly dishonest about saying that we did not want a Status of Forces Agreement in order to leave troops in Iraq. His administration sought it aggressively, and because he failed, the thing never happened. Just as well. On the other hand, neither addressed either the pro-Iranian stance of Iraq's Shi'ite government, or what our role in the region would be should Iraq disintegrate.
Afghanistan: Neither candidate suggested that the end of 2014 is too far off for removing our troops. Neither talked about the possibility that the next presidential election in this country will have no validity, or whether we're continuing to throw barrels of money down a sink hole.
Syria: The one place where the president shined. He seems to have finally learned that we are consistently in the dark about what's going on in the region, and that the solution is not to arm the freedom fighter du jour who could become tomorrow's enemy. Romney also displayed caution toward involvement, but would have to wrestle with the hawks in his own party.
Lebanon: We lost a lot of Marines there in 1983. I wonder how many people in the administration have the least insight into this complicated mess sitting on Israel's northern border. Romney probably can't find it on a map.
Turkey: The biggest conventional military power in the region is also a NATO ally. Nonetheless, our relations with Turkey have been strained for years, and Turkey remains on the outs with Israel, which doesn't make our lives easier. Another subject that was missing in action last night.
The Pacific: China and trade, trade and China. The Chinese are rapidly building up their military and will contend for control of the most of the western Pacific. Would we really go to war over Taiwan? How will we deal with Japan and troop basing in the region going forward? How much will we base in Australia? Are we actually willing to lose ships in defending a fuzzy policy?
India/Pakistan: How do we balance our relationship with two nuclear powers that hate each other's guts?
Africa: I suppose it exists, and I hear that it is the richest continent in terms of resources. Wouldn't have known it from last night.
South America: Ditto. What ever happened to the Monroe Doctrine?
The president probably won last night, but so what? This country may be facing the most confused foreign policy picture in its history. Why can't you find a statesman when you really need one?