08/28/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2012

The Most Important Issue in This Year's Presidential Debates

While we are being distracted by all sorts of serious matters ranging from abortion to tax returns and everything in between, we ought to give closer attention to what is going on in Israel and Iran: maybe this time they mean it about obliterating each other, and drawing us into a battle for the Straits of Hormuz. The oil markets are telling us something by taking it seriously.

The issue of war and peace is always the most important issue in our presidential debates, especially for a nation that has been at war for nearly 50 percent of my 68-year lifetime. That issue is often overwhelmed by more urgent-seeming issues of the economy or various social policy concerns, or even purposely evaded by the candidates. But the underlying purpose of debates is to separate the truly important from the merely urgent, and to reveal the true character and temperament of the candidates (so vital to their judgments on questions of military action).

We have weathered numerous financial crises in our country's lifetime, and employed solutions from both the Left and the Right to work our way forward (and then discarded them). War has far more indelible consequences, especially for the people who fight them, and economies that pay for them (or put off the bills). Consider the U.S. deficit, already huge post-Iraq and Afghanistan even before the Great Recession. Ask the estimated 2 million Vietnamese, or the 50,000 dead and 150,000 maimed from the U.S., who were the permanent victims of that conflict. But those outcomes were hardly foreshadowed in LBJ's 1964 campaign versus Senator Goldwater: that campaign did turn decisively on one TV commercial featuring a mushroom cloud, but certainly not on disclosure of our secret plans for post-election raids on North Vietnam from the Gulf of Tonkin.

Both Nixon and Humphrey campaigned and debated on their "peace plans" in 1968, but the Vietnam War continued for seven more years regardless. So we must pay the closest attention to what Obama and Romney convey about their intentions with respect to the current danger of yet another Mideast War involving the U.S. either in Iran, Israel, Syria or places nearby like Pakistan.

The troubled Euro will live or die without permanent consequences to the U.S.; our troubled economy is not nearly on its way to Greek-style bankruptcy, and can tolerate a variety of choices to attack our jobs and health cost problems. The irreversible consequences of choices of war and peace, however, mean that both candidates should be pressed to the wall in the debates about their true intentions in the Mideast.

Perhaps they will even let their imaginations -- and their campaign commitments -- run toward solutions that will not yield yet another decade of mass bloodshed in that region with the US as a central player (if not a willing payer) in terms of the economic and human "deficit" such wars extract, willy-nilly, from their participants.