James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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The Topics for Next Week’s Presidential Debate on Foreign Policy Are Debatable

by James M. Lindsay
October 15, 2012

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama debate in Denver on October 3, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/ courtesy Reuters) Mitt Romney and Barack Obama debate in Denver on October 3, 2012. (Kevin Lamarque/ courtesy Reuters)


Bob Schieffer, the moderator of the third and final presidential debate of 2012, informed the Obama and Romney campaigns last week that he had selected debate topics. The debate, which is scheduled for next Monday, October 22, at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, will focus on foreign policy. The ninety-minute debate will be divided into six, fifteen minute segments.

Here are the topics that Schieffer selected:

  • America’s role in the world
  • Our longest war—Afghanistan and Pakistan
  • Red Lines—Israel and Iran
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism I
  • The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism II
  • The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World

None of these choices is surprising. They are the topics that have dominated the campaign conversation thus far. But the list leaves out several critical issues that the next president will have to confront. Mexico doesn’t make the list, even though growing drug-related violence there may have a greater direct impact on Americans than some of the issues that made Schieffer’s list. Russia also doesn’t make the cut despite the fact that Governor Romney says it is America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” There is no discussion of trade or the international global financial system even though we live in a globalized world in which what happens in other economies will go a long way toward determining whether people in Peoria and Portland have jobs. And climate change continues to be the issue that dominates political discussions everywhere but in the United States.

Perhaps these or other issues—foreign aid, Africa, Venezuela, and global health come to mind—will get raised in the course of the conversation next Monday night. And, of course, no ninety-minute debate can tackle every significant foreign policy issue. Still, in all it seems that Schieffer’s choice of debate topics is, well, debatable.

Finally, one bit of historical irony about next week’s debate. It will be held on the fiftieth anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s televised address to the nation that the Soviets had begun installing nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. The speech marked the beginning of the public phase of the Cuban missile crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union went to the brink of nuclear war. The anniversary is a solemn reminder of what is at stake in foreign policy. May the next president, whoever he is, not face a situation of similar gravity.

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