Final Presidential Debate: Some Critical Foreign Policy Questions Obama and Romney Are Not Answering

The presidential polls now show a dead-heat. As Peggy Noonan wrote in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, the presidential debates this year “have been more consequential than such debates have ever been.” A lot is at stake, and if tonight’s debate is to be meaningful, the candidates must develop a coherent account of America’s role in the world and its foreign policy principles, and not only ground-level accounts of America’s approaches to particular regions and issues. A coherent account of the former — our principles — should then translate to solutions to the latter — their application to particular facts and circumstances that arise on the world stage.

I hope you will tune in to my live-blog coverage this evening. In anticipation, here are some big issues that I would like to see addressed. Full-disclosure: I am a Romney-Ryan supporter. But much of what follows will be criticisms of this ticket. The pair has failed to meaningfully distinguish what their policies and principles would be from those of the current administration. And when they have distinguished themselves — on China, say — the deviation from administration policy has been worrisome.

View from Above the Canopy: At the vice presidential debate, the moderator asked in a brief follow-up question of Ryan what would be his (and Romney’s) criteria for intervening in the affairs of other nations. While Biden did not get this question, it is important for President Obama to answer it tonight. In his own few seconds to answer, Ryan said that one necessary criterion is that intervention must be in America’s national interest. This is a sensible answer. But is self-interest the only criterion? Can a case be made that idealism — such as promoting democracy and human rights — has a role to play? Or has the Bush administration effectively scuttled such a notion? What is the relationship between realism and idealism?

Iran, Nukes, and Democracy: For example, it seems to have been the policy of the Obama administration to pursue non-proliferation — which is in our national interest — through negotiations with Iran, rather than to support actively the democratic activists in Iran in 2009-10. The president had an early opportunity to support an opposition movement, led by Mir Hossein Mousavi, that seemed genuinely moderate and democratic; certainly it would be an improvement on the current regime. Yet the United States was unwavering in its caution not to undermine the existing regime.

As the Journal reported, the administration even de-funded a Connecticut-based human rights group that documented human rights abuses in Iran. It denied renewed funding to Freedom House for an online Farsi-English newspaper related to democracy and human rights, and denied funding to the International Republican Institute, which provided support and training for Iranian reformers.

What Romney must articulate tonight is that the only guarantee of a nuclear-free Iran would be a democratic Iran, with a moderate regime willing to engage with the West. Negotiations cannot achieve this, but regime change can. Put differently, Iran may be an example of how promoting our ideals — democracy and human rights — can also promote our national interest — ensuring a nuclear-free Iran. 

Syria (and Lebanon): Syria is another example of applying a framework of idealism and realism. Again at the vice presidential debate, Ryan could not explain what a Romney administration would have done differently from Obama’s. What about the imposition of a no-fly zone? Why are we so tepid about regime change in Syria? It seems like a prime example where our ideals and self-interest, as well as those of the Syrian people and the region as a whole, are all aligned. The Syrian regime is no good, period: it represses its own people and exports terrorism, destabilizing the region.

I can see no rationale, therefore, for neglecting to implement a no-fly zone and to shoot down Syrian airplanes. There is no sense in supporting the rebels openly, as we are doing, but only half-heartedly. We get all the downsides (if any) of hostility toward the Syrian regime whether or not our intervention is more or less aggressive.

China bashing: There is a lot more that can be said about the Middle East—so stay tuned for live commentary later this evening. But one last issue I would like to flag before tonight is China. Romney seems to think that by being tougher on China is either good policy or good politics. I can’t speak to the latter; but it strikes me as terrible policy. First, there is the economic argument: while we may lose some manufacturing jobs here, are American consumers — which far outnumber American manufacturers — harmed by China depressing its currency? We get cheaper goods, and I fail to see the downside to that. Do we want to pay another couple hundred dollars for our i-Pads?

But more importantly, China-bashing is poor statesmanship. China is the next major superpower, and we will have to engage it for decades to come. The vitriol that has been sputtered in its direction cannot be good for bilateral relations between our two countries. True, as Truman once said, to become a statesman one has to be elected first. Nevertheless, I think both sides should tone it down on China tonight. Not very likely, I admit.

Stay Tuned: Again, please stay tuned. Hopefully we’ll get some questions on foreign aid, the role of the UN, Russia, and other interesting topics.