The final presidential debate left a picture of two candidates with rather similar views on the specifics of how the United States should tackle some of the challenges it faces beyond its borders. Mitt Romney tried to paint Obama as weak — and weakening America — but he ended up essentially agreeing with the course of action the president has taken on Syria, Egypt and Iran, while the two candidates reaffirmed their strong commitment for Israel.
And yet, the debate omitted a number of extremely important issues in the foreign policy arena, including some on which the candidates would have drawn sharp distinctions. That was in large part because they agreed (once again) that they had little to gain by wading into the complicated dilemmas.
Despite mentioning Israel on 31 occasions, and spending a great deal of time on the subject of Muslim extremism, the candidates did not address one of the subjects that have consumed American presidents and U.S. foreign policy for decades: What to do about the Arab-Israeli, or Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The “peace process” was at the heart of the 2008 presidential campaign. But it’s easy to see why in 2012 the candidates sidestepped the thorny issue. Four years ago, Obama declared, “Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided.” As Romney discovered during his recent trip to Jerusalem, that statement always makes waves. Obama had to “clarify” what he meant. And Romney came under sharp attack for even bringing up the matter.
Another enormous issue that did not come up in the debate was the crisis in the Eurozone, where America’s European allies are struggling to save the European project. It was unfortunate that the issue was not discussed, because it presented an ideal opportunity to lay out the diametrically opposed views.
The main question about the Eurozone crisis for the U.S. is simply: What are the lessons for America?
Romney presumably would have said the lesson is that excessive government spending eventually has calamitous consequences. Obama, conversely, might have told us that what we see in Europe is evidence that harsh austerity measures can make the situation worse, causing social upheaval and deepening the economic crisis.
Obama and Romney quickly agreed on Afghanistan and Pakistan, concurring on the need to end U.S. involvement there. But I would have liked to hear a discussion about what will happen to the women of Afghanistan after the U.S. leaves and what America can do about it.
It was only a couple of weeks ago that the Pakistani Taliban fired a bullet into the head of 14-year-old Malala Yousufzai, the outspoken promoter of every girl’s right to an education. Her would-be assassins share an ideology with their Taliban brethren across the border. America’s withdrawal is a terrifying prospect for Afghanistan’s women. It warranted a word from the candidates. But the answers are not easy, so the candidates left it out.
It would have been good to hear the candidates discuss, on a larger level, what role, if any, human rights should have in U.S. foreign policy. Does Washington care when Russia imprisons artists who are critical of President Putin? Does or should China’s continuing imprisonment of dissidents affect relations between Washington and Beijing?
That topic, however, would have led to an even more immediate question: does America have a responsibility to take action after the Syrian regime has killed tens of thousands? Why did it intervene in Libya to prevent a massacre, but not in Syria? And, for that matter, why did it support democratic movements in Egypt, but not in Bahrain?
There’s much more that merited but did not receive attention. There was practically no talk about the drug war next door, in Mexico, where the outgoing president has pleaded with the U.S. to take action on arms control, because American guns are making the conflict much deadlier. And there was no talk on immigration from Mexico and Central America; nothing on Cuba, presumably because the candidates agree on strict economic sanctions — or if they did not, they would not say it just before the election.
There was no mention of the brewing conflicts pitting an ascendant China against close American allies in the region, including Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, and not a word about India, the world’s second most populous country, and an ideal Asian ally to help counterbalance China.
There were many other important issues left out. Still, I’m glad we had a foreign policy debate at all in a campaign that has focused so much on domestic issues, during a time of dangerous global turmoil. The candidates understandably prefer to focus on domestic matters. But foreign affairs have a way of taking center stage in real life, once the campaign ends and governing begins.