Two down, one to go. Tonight's debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney is the final major event of this long, nasty campaign prior to election day itself, which is now just 15 days away. Republicans are unhappy that the topic — foreign policy — is the subject of this last clash; some in the GOP establishment hoped that jobs and the economy, the central issue of campaign 2012, would be the last thing voters heard before they cast their ballot — though with the jobs outlook improving, perhaps the foreign policy focus helps the GOP.
The broad contours of tonight are already known. We'll hear the president talk about how he has kept America safe for the last four years, including, of course, ordering the mission that got Osama bin Laden. He'll talk about how he is shifting America's strategic focus to Asia to counter a rising China, and how tough sanctions, in concert with our allies, are squeezing Iran. The New York Times reported over the weekend that Iran has now agreed to one-on-one talks with the United States, although the White House quickly denied it.
Romney has a different view: He'll say Obama has made America weaker. He'll say that Obama's "leading from behind" strategy in the Middle East has helped that volatile region spin out of control, and enabled the rise of new leaders who view America less favorably than before. To make his point, Romney will mention Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya who, along with three other Americans, died in a terror attack on our consulate in Benghazi six weeks ago. And there's no doubt that Romney – a lifelong friend of Benjamin Netanyahu — will accuse Obama of being ambivalent toward Israel and soft on China.
There's a déjà vu quality to much of this: The outsider always criticizes those in power, and this year it's Romney's turn to be holier than thou. The Republican nominee — whose less-than-smooth trip to Europe and Israel in July wasn't exactly statesmanlike — thinks he knows better and has all the answers.
The outsider always criticizes those in power, and this year it's Romney's turn to be holier than thou.
Of course, that's what Obama thought in 2008. Back then, the junior senator from Illinois also thought he knew better. He was highly critical of George W. Bush's national security policies — but as president, Obama stepped up the war in Afghanistan, tripling the U.S. footprint there. He extended key provisions of Bush's Patriot Act. He ordered a big increase in drone strikes on terror targets. For a guy whose opponents have painted him as pro-Muslim, it's important to note that those drone strikes have infuriated the Muslim world and helps explain why Obama is deeply reviled in much of the region.
So, let's take a quick tour through a handful of global hotspots that we'll hear about tonight — and the ones that we ought to hear about, but will be ignored:
Romney has criticized Obama as being weak on China. Sounds like Bill Clinton, who, as governor in 1992, said George Bush senior was sucking up to the butchers of Beijing in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But as president, Clinton grew cozy with the Chinese. Romney has accused China of being a currency manipulator — but as a businessman he certainly knows that China's currency has actually strengthened by about 10 percent, which makes our exports more competitive in that market. Obama may attack on claims that during his Bain years, Romney was more than eager to send jobs to China.
Romney has been particularly critical of Obama's handling of Iran, saying that on his watch the mullahs in Tehran have been allowed to move perilously close to acquiring nuclear weapons. It is true that the president has refused, publicly, to state what the so-called "red line" is that would trigger U.S. military action, a refusal that has angered the Israelis. But Romney has also avoided saying exactly what his red line would be, either. He does say, simply, that if he were president, Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon — which is exactly what Obama says. Romney has called for new sanctions — like the kind the Obama administration and its allies have imposed for years. Iran's leaders admit the sanctions are hurting — there are growing shortages of goods, and there have been street protests over the effects of Iran's plunging currency. Tonight you can expect the president to tell Romney: If you're in favor of a new Middle East war, just say so.
This, not Libya, may be the administration's Achilles heel. Weakening the Assad regime would strike a blow at Syria's principal supporter in the region — Iran. Rebels have been given non-lethal aid (such as intelligence), and the CIA is reportedly assisting with allied arms shipments to them. But the lack of direct U.S. military aid has left Obama vulnerable to charges that he hasn't done enough to topple Assad. Romney has called for direct American arming of the rebels.
There's little disagreement here. Romney has admitted that the Afghan surge ordered by Obama in 2009 was a success. But he has criticized Obama's public deadline to withdraw U.S. combat forces by the end of 2014. And yet, Romney himself has called for "a real and successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014" — which again, is the current strategy, as approved by NATO in November 2010.
What they should talk about — but won't
There has been little talk thus far of North Korea, an unstable nuclear-armed country that poses a threat to East Asian security. There has been very little discussion of Pakistan, the unstable half-friend, half-foe that sheltered Osama bin Laden — and controls an estimated 90 to 110 nuclear weapons.
Debates, with their superficial focus on appearance, body language, and "gotcha" moments, are poorly suited for broader crucial topics. Thus little talk of the ongoing collapse of the world's largest economy — the European Union — and its economic impact on the United States.
There has been little talk of the fact that emerging economies like China and India will consume more energy than the U.S. and developed world in the years ahead — and will compete with us for resources. There are some who think we can drill, baby, drill our way to $2-a-gallon gasoline — but they seem oblivious to the fact that the United States is currently exporting gasoline (exports have tripled over the past 18 months) because of the high prices foreigners will pay. Whatever we drill, baby, drill in the future will keep going overseas because that's where the market of tomorrow is.
There has been little talk of global water shortages and climate change, which are helping to effect food prices here at home, were a leading cause of the Arab Spring, and are contributing to less food being produced around the world. A recent Stanford University study pointed out that global wheat production fell 5.5 percent between 1980 and 2008 (while population neared 7 billion) because of warmer temperatures. The implications of not having enough food to eat and water to drink are profound — the Pentagon has factored these worries into its long-range security planning — but we won't hear a peep from Obama or Romney about it tonight.
Read more political coverage at The Week's 2012 Election Center.