Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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How to Watch the U.S. Presidential Debate

by Micah Zenko
October 3, 2012

A worker helps to erect an ornamental eagle on the stage for the U.S. presidential debate in Denver, Colorado (Rick Wilking/Courtesy Reuters). A worker helps to erect an ornamental eagle on the stage for the U.S. presidential debate in Denver, Colorado (Rick Wilking/Courtesy Reuters).


Tonight’s presidential debate in Denver is supposed to focus on domestic issues, so prepare yourself for lots of talk about the power of job creators, Romneycare versus Obamacare, and fiscal cliffs. Nevertheless, given that foreign policy issues have been at the heart of Mitt Romney’s recent attacks on President Obama, it is likely that international affairs will creep into the discussion.

A Romney campaign spokesperson warned that the Republican candidate would “crystallize the choice for voters on the issue of foreign policy and national security,” and “lay out a stronger vision for American foreign policy based on the strong leadership that we need to shape world events and protect American interests and ideals.” If Romney’s op-ed, “A New Course for the Middle East,” is any indication, that vision will be adjective-dense and recommendation-free.

Meanwhile, President Obama consistently outpolls Romney on the question of who would be a better commander in chief (45 to 38 percent), or better at handling foreign policy (52 to 45 percent)—although those slim leads could be quickly erased in the event of the infamous “October surprise.” At the same time, the White House is goading Romney to provide specifics on his foreign policy agenda. As the White House spokesperson Jay Carney said on Monday: “What we know about, in this case Governor Romney’s foreign policy, is that on the very—the areas that you mentioned, his actual proposals—if he has any—are no different from what the President is actually doing.”

As you watch the presidential debates, here are ten foreign policy issues to keep in mind:

  1. Does Romney use the word “capability” when stating that he will prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?
  2. How does Romney’s strategy for preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon differ from that of President Obama, other than use of the term “crippling sanctions”?
  3. Does Romney defend his characterization of Russia as the “number one geopolitical foe” of the United States?
  4. Does either candidate endorse providing lethal aid to Syria’s rebels? If so, what do they claim it would accomplish?
  5. Does either candidate endorse intervening directly in Syria’s civil war with airstrikes, a no-fly zone, or the establishment of humanitarian corridors?
  6. Does either candidate endorse an accelerated timetable for removing U.S. troops from Afghanistan, or for extending the U.S. military presence beyond 2014?
  7. Does either candidate say “Latin America,” “India,” or “Africa”? (Excluding reference to the Benghazi consulate attack.)
  8. How does Obama defend or explain the successes of his Afghanistan strategy, now that an important element of that strategy—a peace agreement with the Taliban—has collapsed?
  9. Does Obama acknowledge drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen?
  10. Does Obama explain the legal rationale for authorizing the deaths of four U.S. citizens (three of whom were unintentional victims)?

If you are playing a drinking game while watching the debate, take a drink every time Romney uses the words “leadership” and “strength,” and every time Obama says “folks” or “bin Laden.”

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Nikos Retsos

    Good issues for the audience to be alert on. But answers by the candidates won’t be like contracts with the American public that they could be forced to fulfill. Answers, therefore, are designed to hook votes, and not binding to the candidates in the thereafter!

    Would it really be a useful debate? I don’t really see it, because I don’t expect anything new to come up. Both candidates have actually covered so far every subject imaginable that was thrown at them, and there is nothing new left to sink their teeth into. The candidates have been preparing for this debate by checking their menus, and re-spicing or re-portioning issues descriptions to make their answers more palatable and easier for the audiences to swallow. I don’t expect, therefore, to see any jaw-dropping in the national audience, but I expect a lot of shrugging and listeners recalling: “I heard that before!”

    What do I expect from tonight’s debate? A lively rehash! I predict plenty of smirking by the weakling Romney, an Obama trying to look presidential, and the national audience struggling to make sense of the unavoidable flip-flapping by the candidates!

    Whereupon, I view the debate as the confetti of the presidential campaign, with the balloons to come later – after November 6! Nikos Retsos, retired professor

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