Half of the six topics the candidates will discuss in tonight’s third and final presidential debate are devoted to the Middle East, illustrating the centrality of that region to U.S. foreign policy. While winning the debate has become the objective of this exercise, the real purpose of the debate is to inform U.S. voters about where the candidates stand on key issues, and where they would lead the country as president from 2013 onwards.
Both candidates will try to deploy as many facts and the names of as many obscure global locales to demonstrate their command of foreign affairs and their bona fides to serve as commander in chief. I would urge moderator Bob Schieffer to avoid getting sucked into games of “gotcha,” and instead try to tease out where the candidates seek to lead the country on issues that post challenges to U.S. interests and which directly affect U.S. lives and treasure. Here are eight issues I’ll be looking for President Obama and Governor Romney to address in tonight’s foreign policy debate.
The Arab Uprisings and U.S. Interests. The Middle East has been embroiled in sustained demonstrations and revolution since December 2010 when popular Arab uprisings broke out. Leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been forced from office, some at the urging of the United States. Are the uprisings sweeping through many parts of the Middle East good or bad for the Middle East and for U.S. vital interests in that part of the world? Just what are U.S. vital interests in the Middle East today?
The Rise of Islamist Parties. Islamist parties appear to be on the ascendance in the Middle East. Dictators and autocrats have been replaced by Islamist leaders and parties in Egypt and Tunisia. Is this a dangerous development for the region and for the United States, a welcome development, or an inevitable outcome that the United States is powerless to influence in any case? Should the United States be doing more to affect the outcomes of struggles underway in the region? Do we have friends and allies we should be supporting in countries currently struggling over their futures, or is it not our place to interfere?
Libya. Republicans and Democrats are currently locked into a fight over the events surrounding the tragic murder of four American officials in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi. Learning what happened on that fateful day and understanding how U.S. officials handled security in Libya is critical. But broader strategic questions still need to be answered about Washington’s Libya policies in the past and in the future: Was the U.S. intervention in Libya “the right war”? Having helped to defeat Muammar Qaddafi through military means, has the United States done enough to help secure the peace in Libya, and should we do more?
Syria. Why was it right to intervene in Libya on humanitarian grounds, but not right to intervene in Syria where over thirty thousand people have been killed so far? What made Libya the right war and Syria not? Does the United States have strategic interests in Syria? Specifically:
President Obama: You long ago called on Assad to step down, but have since focused exclusively on Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal as a red-line for U.S. action. Do you see events in Syria as an opportunity to weaken the hand of Syria’s key ally Iran? Do you intend to maintain a hands-off approach to Syria even as violence there spills over threatening Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Israel, and Iraq?
Governor Romney: You have accused the president of failing to lead in Syria and have called for arming the opposition. While everyone in the United States wants Assad to go, how would you ensure that the United States improves the situation rather than makes it worse? And how would you ensure that things do not descend into chaos if Assad were to go? Given the importance you stress on the conflict, would you considering sending American troops to Syria?
Egypt. Egypt is a pivotal country in the Middle East and the home to one quarter of all the Arab people. Is Egypt today, led by an Islamist leader, still an ally? Should the United States continue to provide billions of dollars annually to the Egyptian government, and should this continue to be military assistance, or should we provide greater economic and development assistance? Should conditions be placed on any U.S. assistance to Egypt, and if so what should they be?
Israel. How would you assess our relationship with Israel, a country you both consider a friend and vital U.S. ally? How would you say the United States has handled our bilateral relationship? President Obama: you have visited many countries in the Middle East as president but not Israel, why? Governor Romney: you recently visited the Middle East and only visited Israel: why did you not visit any Arab countries including those where American troops are based?
Israeli-Palestinian peace: President Obama: you took office and immediately identified Israeli-Palestinian peace as a top U.S. priority? Yet for the past year and a half, you have largely ignored this issue. Is that because you don’t think peace is possible or is it because you no longer think it is important to the United States? Governor Romney: Should Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts be a top priority for the United States? How would you pursue it, especially since you have been quoted saying that you see the Palestinians as “committed to the destruction and elimination of Israel”?
Iran. A whole section of tonight’s debate is slated to address the issue of red-lines, Israel, and Iran. The core issue that American voters should hear about is precisely why is a nuclear Iran a threat to U.S. interests? Should such a development be prevented by any means, or are there circumstances where it might be unavoidable, even if it is “unacceptable”? Yes or no for both candidates: Are you willing to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons?