Friday, September 26, 2008

A few random thoughts on tonight's debate

With an emphasis on "random", keep in mind this isn't a full review, though I think I may take a tip from boxing and score the next debate on a 10-point must system.

First thought? I was disappointed. The first debate was supposed to focus on foreign policy. Now with what happened on Wall Street this past week, it's understandable that there would be questions about the economy. Of course, the logical thing would have been to swap the topic of this debate with the topic of the third and final debate, which happens to be the economy. But that didn't happen, so instead we got a half-economy/half-foreign policy night.

Not that the topic seemed to matter much, both John McCain and Barack Obama didn't give answers to questions in the first half hour or so of the debate, rather they gave recaps of their stump speeches. McCain started especially slow, giving Obama an early advantage. When they did get around to foreign policy, a lot of the discussion was on the war in Iraq. And again, here they both seemed to stick to their well-trod policy positions and stump speeches. I didn't think there was a lot of new ground covered here. And I think that a big problem with US foreign policy in the past few years is that it has been so dominated by Iraq/the War on Terror that a lot of regions/countries/events have been ignored, so I was looking for discussion of some other topics.

In the end we got three: Iran, Pakistan and Russia (maybe there would have been more if the economic talk hadn't gobbled up so much time). In the Iran section McCain repeated his (dumb) idea for a "League of Democracies" to help deal with rogue states (I say the League idea is dumb because we need more dialog with the world community, not less. Remember the words of Yitzhak Rabin: "you don't make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies). For his part, Obama called a nuclear Iran unacceptable. They then fought over what the meaning of the term "pre-conditions" meant, going back to Obama's early pledge to meet with the leaders of countries like Iran without pre-conditions.

The discussion on Pakistan was the most interesting, with McCain making some good points, including the need to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people so that they would be partners in the fight against Islamic extremists like al-Qaeda. Obama again said that he would instruct the US military to conduct raids into Pakistan if the Pakistanis were not willing or able to do it themselves. The only problem is that the US has been doing this for the past few weeks and it's absolutely enraged the Pakistanis to the point that on at least one occasion this week their troops shot at one of our helicopters. Not a way to win hearts and minds...

The Russian section was predictable: both warned about an aggressive Russia under Putin and condemned Russia for attacking Georgia (ignoring the fact that Georgia started the conflict by attacking the South Ossetian city Tskhinvali). Obama said that he didn't want a new Cold War with Russia, but also committed a pretty sizable gaff when he said he warned about Russian peacekeepers on Georgian soil last April – apparently not knowing that Russian peacekeepers have been on the ground in the disputed regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia for the past 15 years.

Perhaps Obama was lucky that the economy took up so much of the debate, he never seemed quite comfortable or confident talking about world affairs - promoting a policy that's causing problems with Pakistan, his lack of knowledge about the Russian peacekeepers. McCain on the other hand was able to talk about personally visiting the Pakistani border area Waziristan and the disputed (now "independent") Georgian regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia (Mac didn't specify which one he visited), it did give him a certain gravitas that Obama lacked. Obama though did have a good point at the very end - that the United States involvement in Iraq weakened the country's capacity to project power abroad.

Was there a winner? I don't think a clear one. Obama was better in the beginning, but I'd say McCain came off better on world affairs. It is too bad that they couldn't have talked more on foreign policy since there are so many more issues out there: the rise of China, America's role in South America, our relations with Europe, the brewing struggle for the resources of the Arctic, North Korea, even a discussion of Russia past the sound bites and stereotypes. It would be nice if a few of these topics could make it into one of the other two debates, but I won't hold my breath.

Next up: the vice presidential debate next Thursday.
Sphere: Related Content

No comments: