What they didn’t debate
Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2008 9:42 pm
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — The television audience may find it a bit odd that the first of three debates between the two presidential contenders focused on foreign policy when the nation’s economic future is on everybody’s mind. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., made a brief attempt to postpone or even call off the debate, saying he would not appear unless a bipartisan deal had emerged on Capitol Hill. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., resisted, saying the time when voters most need to hear from the candidates is at a time of crisis.
The Presidential Commission on Debates weighed in to resolve the impasse. Thanks, but no thanks, was the message to McCain, and so the debate scheduled for Friday evening in Mississippi went ahead as planned, with the opening portion focusing on the financial bailout.
Although the two campaigns agreed that the first debate would be about foreign policy, the Wall Street meltdown is an issue of national security with the administration poised to borrow another $700 billion from Asian bankers to underwrite the growing U.S. debt.
When the presidential race began almost two years ago, the war in Iraq was the top issue. That’s no longer the case. With the number of American casualties down and a relative sense of stability taking hold in Iraq, the two candidates are not that far apart in wanting to responsibly wind down the U.S. presence. A growing involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more problematic, and here too, both candidates have tended to be more hawkish, calling for more troops in Afghanistan.
The overarching question for the next president is how to deal with a newly resurgent Russia. McCain has called for ousting Russia from the G-8, a club of western democracies, while Obama is on the side of aggressive diplomatic and economic engagement. That is perhaps the starkest difference in the way the two candidates look at the world.
McCain would punish Russia for invading Georgia, a former satellite state, while the Olympic Games in Beijing distracted much of the world. Obama takes the view that we need Russia to fight terrorism and to safeguard its nuclear arsenal from terrorists, and that engagement is not capitulation.
The two theories will be challenged in the context of Russia dispatching a fleet to Venezuela, the first time since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that Russia has inserted itself into what American presidents consider the U.S. sphere of influence. Venezuela is one of the leading producers of oil, and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is no friend of America, challenging and ridiculing President
Bush whenever he can. Chavez, who is a Socialist, gave a speech in Caracas where according to Reuters news service he said, “The United States has spent $900 billion, four times what the Venezuelan economy produces in a year, to try to boost the troubled finance system and housing market. . . . They have criticized me, especially in the United States, for nationalizing a great company, CANTV, that didn’t even cost $1.5 billion.” And now, reminiscent of the Russian-Cuban affiliation of ‘62, Russia is providing him with money to buy arms.
Chavez gloating over America’s economic mismanagement should remind the candidates of what we’ve squandered in the eyes of the world. Rival powers like Russia and China have opportunities to challenge U.S. interests that they didn’t have before. It’s not surprising that
Russia is pushing back against the installation of a U.S. missile defense system in Poland. McCain supports the venture despite its high cost and doubts that it can work. Obama thinks it is unnecessarily provocative at this time in Russia’s history. Who’s right? Bringing it back to Wall Street, China has emerged as one of our major trading partners along with being the chief banker for another round of borrowed money. Is this inter-dependence healthy or do we have just as much reason to fear China’s leverage over our economy as the Russian fleet steaming toward Venezuela? These are not exactly pocketbook issues; maybe they should be. And maybe they should have debated them in the debate.