Friday, September 26, 2008


How to Score the Foreign-Policy Debate

Has your attention been tied up sorting out the numbers on that $700 billion bailout package? Ilan Goldenberg walks you through tonight's debate.

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How to Score the Foreign-Policy Debate

A year ago, with Gen. Petraeus having just testified in Washington and the Iraq War still at the center of the political universe, it would have been hard to imagine national security playing second fiddle in the presidential election. But with the events of the past two weeks, it has become clear that barring a major foreign-policy crisis, the economy will dominate the remainder of the campaign. The subject of this Friday's presidential debate -- national security -- seems distant and removed. A little blip in what is otherwise an economic tsunami.

Nonetheless, if the Bush presidency has taught us anything, it has taught us that understanding a candidate's philosophy on the matters of war and peace matters. The stakes for the candidates tonight may not be as high as one would have expected a few months ago, but they are still high.

John McCain's candidacy is premised on his experience and national-security prowess. In poll after poll he holds a substantial point lead on the question of who is better prepared to be commander in chief -- leading by 21 points in the NY Times/CBS News poll released just yesterday. Ironically, this means there is more pressure on McCain tonight. He cannot simply hold his own with Obama. He must show his mastery of the issues justifies the advantage the American public attributes to him.

Obama's task is easier, but no less crucial. National security has become a threshold question for Obama. He doesn't necessarily have to outperform McCain. Instead, Obama's task is to reassure Americans that he is in fact ready to lead on the critical issue of security.

With these criteria in mind here are four things to watch during the debate:

Watch the Gaffes

In a perfect world we wouldn't care about trivial gaffes and would focus instead on the real substance of the debate. In the real world, gaffes act as the clearest proxy for a candidate's understanding and knowledge of the issues. An error by Sen. Obama would confirm in some voters' minds that he is not ready. A major factual error on the part of Sen. McCain could be devastating -- undermining the argument that he has the best knowledge and experience to keep America safe.

Unfortunately for Sen. McCain, his campaign has been full of foreign policy gaffes. In March, while travelling in the Middle East, he confused Sunni and Shi'a claiming that Sunni al-Qaeda operatives were being trained by Iran before returning to Iraq. In July, he butchered the history of the Anbar Awakening in an interview with Katie Couric, arguing that it was caused by the surge even though it started months before the increase in troops was even announced. He has on numerous occasions referred to Czechoslovakia -- a country that hasn't existed for 15 years. Last week he gave an interview to the Florida affiliate of Spain's Union radio where he appeared confused about who Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain was, seemingly assuming he was a Latin American leader. Thus far the press has given McCain the benefit of the doubt on foreign policy precisely because of his experience. But he is unlikely to get that type of sympathy under the spotlight of the debate. One glaring mistake could be devastating, especially considering that two days ago McCain was calling for the debate's postponement.


One of the imperatives of Senator McCain's campaign has been to demonstrate that he is not George W. Bush. In no area has he been more associated with the president than on foreign policy. McCain will point to differences on torture and global warming. He will claim that he opposed the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy for Iraq (even though he was an outspoken supporter of going in with low troop levels in advance of the war).

Moreover, it will be difficult for McCain to escape the fact that he agrees with the president on the fundamental issues: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and terrorism. McCain was one of the main spokespeople for the war in Iraq -- calling for toppling Saddam Hussein in the weeks after September 11, and just like the president, dramatically underestimating the difficulty and costs of the war. While Obama was an early opponent of the Iraq War and argued it would distract us from dealing with al-Qaeda, McCain waited until July 15 of this year to enunciate any kind of an Afghanistan policy. In fact, Afghanistan barely even came up during the Republican national convention. On Iran, McCain has promoted tougher sanctions and no direct diplomatic engagement -- a policy that the Bush administration has tried for years with no success as Iran has moved further along on its uranium enrichment program and a bipartisan consensus for direct talks has emerged. It's hard to imagine how McCain can convince the country that he is the change candidate when he agrees with the president on all these issues.

It's the Economy Stupid

The economy isn't the central issue of this debate, but it is the issue most on voters' minds, which will certainly not escape the notice of moderator Jim Lehrer. Watch how the candidates link foreign policy to the economy and how they respond to questions about the financial crisis. Voters may have less appetite for John McCain's more aggressive military-focused approach than they had only two weeks ago. This is not to say that the American public is ready to return to isolationism. But given the current environment, spending $10 billion per month in Iraq or growing the military by 150,000 troops, as Sen. McCain has suggested, becomes much less appealing. The economic crisis of the past two weeks may cause voters to reject a foreign policy that in anyway resembles the costly adventurism of George W. Bush, and that could spell trouble for Sen. McCain.

Meanwhile, Sen. Obama has an opportunity to employ his firmer and surer response to the financial crisis to bolster his commander-in-chief credentials. Tying the leadership he has shown in the past two weeks to his response during a foreign-policy crisis could go a long way toward assuaging voter concerns.

Temper, Temper

Both candidates will have to demonstrate that they have the temperament to lead in crisis. For McCain, the question is a sensitive one. He has a past reputation for a hot temper among his Senate colleagues -- a temper that has not been on display during the campaign. One blow up could be quite damaging. But even without a visible burst of anger there is still the question of McCain's judgment. Throughout his career he has shown a tendency to lurch from crisis to crisis. In the aftermath of 9-11 he called for expanding beyond Afghanistan and considering military action against Iraq, Iran, and Syria. In the run up to the Iraq War he called our European allies "vacuous and posturing" referring to them as our "adversaries." Last year he joked about bombing Iran. And when fighting broke out this summer between Russia and Georgia, he immediately lurched toward a hard-line position instead of taking a more cautious initial approach -- the approach taken by President Bush, Sen. Obama, and other world leaders.

In the end, the debate is an imperfect metric for measuring what each candidate's foreign policy may actually be as president. After all, in 2000 George Bush warned against arrogance and promised a humble foreign policy. But what the debate will give us is another indication of whether or not each candidate has the knowledge and judgment to be commander-in-chief and whether or not they can bring real change to Washington and manage America's foreign policy in a time of economic crisis.

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