Presidential election debates rarely clarify substantive policy differences between the candidates. On those occasions when that does happen, the insights characteristically are downplayed or ignored by the media -- as occurred last week. Foreign policy debates are especially prone to leave obscure the key issues and fog our vision of each candidate's positions. Tuesday's Obama-Romney debate promises more of the same mix of platitudes, bromides and patriotic flourishes. In disorderly times, the land fills with loud patriots -- as a Chinese sage warned.
Here is a set of questions which, if the candidates actually are pressed to answer, promise some illumination. Hope springs eternal.
· The American intervention in Iraq has proven a failure. Despite our enormous investment in blood and treasure, the country is sliding toward autocracy, sectarian conflict remains, al-Qaeda has put down roots and the Baghdad government is more responsive to Tehran than to Washington. What lessons have you drawn that should guide our thinking about any future military intervention where core national interests are not threatened? What lessons in regard to "nation-building"?
· The American occupation in Afghanistan, too, is manifestly a costly failure -- except for our initial success in toppling the Taliban government and uprooting al-Qaeda. In retrospect, would we have been wiser to have left at that point? What today are the objectives of retaining a large residual force -- and what is the measure of success?
· The United States is engaged in a tense confrontation with Iran over its nuclear activities. Is that our only concern or do we have other interests and aims there? Can they be achieved without regime change?
· Are American and Israeli interests vis a vis Iran identical, as you both have indicated? If not, please indicate where they diverge.
· The Arab Spring and its aftermath have posed difficult choices for the United States as it tries to reconcile its commitment to democracy promotion with its realpolitik interests in the region. Our allied government in Bahrain has cracked down violently on the democracy movement there with only the mildest expression of concern from Washington. That action has seriously heightened tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite around the Middle East. Please explain your thinking as to why this is the desirable policy.
· The removal of secular autocrats in places seems to clear the way for the rise of various fundamentalist Islamic movements. What ideas do you have as to how the United States can protect its national interests in those circumstances. Can you suggest benchmarks by which to differentiate among various Islamist political elements? Give examples.
· Almost all experts agree that Saudi Arabia is the main sources of funding, educational support and training for the propagation of extreme Islamist ideologies across the Muslim world. In some instances, we find ourselves fighting the very people schooled and inspired in this way. How do you reconcile this reality with our continuing close cooperation with the House of Saud?
· The plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation continues to be a primary source of anti-American feeling across the Middle East. Yet the United States remains steadfast in backing an Israeli government that shows no signs of moving towards reasonable terms of settlement. Should this change?
· Governor Romney, you have declared that Russia is the United States' greatest strategic threat. Please explain your remarks.
· Mr. Obama, do you agree with this appraisal?
· The long-running "war on drugs" is a manifest failure. Most experts agree that the heart of the problem is demand in the United States, not supply from abroad. Is it time to recognize that it is our problem and not theirs?
· Since the Merida agreement whereby the United States has pushed Mexico to launch a more aggressive campaign against drug cartels, it has suffered 50,000 deaths, has seen the breakdown of civil order over large parts of the country -- and drug shipments from south of the border remain robust. Was our policy erroneous? Should it be fundamentally changed?
· Best estimates are that the marijuana trade accounts for about 60 percent of the drug cartels' revenue. In light of this and the overwhelming medical opinion that marijuana is less of a threat to individual health and public safety, is it time to bite the bullet on its legalization? A similar scenario is playing out in Honduras. There, American Special Forces and units of the DEA are engaged in armed combat with drug dealers with civilian deaths collateral damage. Is this a sensible way to deal with America's addiction to drugs?
· In Honduras, we gave tacit backing to the unconstitutional coup whereby the current president, Mr. Lobo Sosa, came to power. We have lost credibility in Latin America as a consequence. Mr. Obama, why did you act this way? Should we continue on this same tack? Is the profitability of American business interests in Honduras one factor? if so, should private interests prevail over the national interest?
· Since Mr. Lobo's accession, identified drug flights into Honduras have risen from 6 per annum to 82. What does this tell us?
· The United States military is actively engaged in 23 countries at this moment. They range from Honduras to Mali to Pakistan. The Army, and Special Forces Command in particular, also undertake numerous non-military activities traditionally assigned to the State Department. Do you see this as a healthy development? What are the justifications?
· The United States currently has Special Forces numbering 6,000 in Afghanistan. Why are they needed in such large numbers? Does their very existence influence judgments as to whether we have enough of an interest there to warrant an American military intervention makes sense?
· Three of the last four Secretaries of State have been women. Do you see advantages to having a woman at the helm of our diplomacy? President Obama, are you prepared to pledge that you would reappoint Hillary Rodham Clinton if you are elected? Governor Romney, are you prepared to pledge that you would appoint a woman if you are elected?
· All analysts agree that the most important changes in world affairs in the 21st century, and the most serious challenges to the United States, will be the result of the rising strength and influence of China. How does your thinking relate China to the other issues that we have been discussing? How does the network of military bases that we are reestablishing in Southeast Asia and Australia figure in your strategy?
· Can you think and use chopsticks at the same time? Please demonstrate.