Politics & Policy

Debate? What Debate?

There was much ground left uncovered.

I’ll let the pundits argue over who “won” the debate, let them dissect body language and facial ticks, let them predict which one-liners resonated more with the elusive “swing voter” or what the likely changes in the polls will be.

I didn’t find the debate particularly informative or helpful. Sure, plenty of the back-and-forth along the lines of the “Tastes Great/Less Filling” debates of yore (in this case, you’re a reckless unilateralist with bad judgment/you’re a fuzzy multilateralist with no convictions).

Fine, one can argue that my perch as an editor at a magazine devoted to American foreign policy disqualifies me from assessing how the showdown between President Bush and Senator Kerry over foreign policy will play out among “ordinary voters” (e.g. those not defined as foreign-policy wonks). But the format, while excellent at producing sound-bites buttressed by factoids, did not allow for any meaningful exploration of what moderator Jim Lehrer termed the “major policy divisions” that separate the two candidates.

And I might add, in a real debate format, not one carefully devised by campaign staff and handlers, the speakers can directly cross-examine each other, can ask for clarifications, can demand that their opponent provide more details. Follow-up questions would have been especially useful.

And if two thirds of the debate was going to be taken up by Iraq, then a different format was certainly justified. I would have been interested to hear a more detailed rejoinder from Kerry to Bush’s point, made at several points, that the senator had had access to the same intelligence available to the president on Iraq–and so concurred, at least in 2002, with his assessment as to the imminent nature of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. I think it would have been illuminating for Bush to sketch out in greater detail how he sets strategic priorities–answering the charge that a single-minded focus on Iraq allowed North Korea and Iran–two countries with nuclear programs far more advanced than Baghdad’s–to reach the nuclear finish line. And I still don’t have any clear criteria from either candidate–from what was said at this debate–about when the U.S. will have achieved its core objectives in Iraq that will permit withdrawal of American forces.

And what I was hoping to see and hear, and didn’t (and it is entirely coincidental that all of the following have been subjects extensively debated in the recent issues of The National Interest):

1) A genuine debate over nonproliferation. The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) was mentioned once; twice Bush referred to Libya, in passing, as a successful case of de-proliferation. Are the PSI’s successes and events in Libya examples of effective multilateral cooperation between the United States and its allies, and so arguments that buttress Kerry’s contention that the U.S. needs to successfully vest other countries as shareholders in continued American leadership of the international system? Are they the after-effects of the “demonstration effect” of the Iraq war (multilateral efforts only work when backed up by the willingness of the United States to unilaterally employ force)–and so vindication of the Bush Doctrine?

2) A real exchange over democracy promotion as a national security strategy. No one disagrees that if the choice is between a democratic Great Britain and a totalitarian dictatorship like North Korea, democracy is preferable. But that’s not the choice we face in much of the world. Do we want Afghanistan or Iraq to look like Colombia or Venezuela–weak, corrupt states even if they are electoral democracies–or would we prefer more gradual evolution toward sustainable liberal institutions, following the model of Taiwan, South Korea, or Singapore? And can Russia, Pakistan, or China be reliable U.S. allies in the war on terror without being full-fledged electoral democracies?

3) Whether by design or by accident, no question about Saudi Arabia came up. U.S. national security and economic prosperity are directly connected to what the Kingdom does about cracking down on groups that support terror, about proceeding with political reforms, and how much oil it chooses to produce. What’s the plan for dealing with Riyadh–and in the last resort, would there be any real difference between the two candidates?

America desperately needs a real debate over foreign policy. I don’t think we got one Thursday night. But then again, I’m just a wonk.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the executive editor of The National Interest.

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