Neither Turkey nor Israel came up in last night’s presidential debate, which was not entirely surprising given the format. The town hall set-up lends itself to a limited number of question, and since only 6% of voters list foreign policy and the Middle East as their single most important issue, the questions from the audience were reflective of that. Foreign policy did come up, however, in a question about the administration’s handling of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, and it encapsulated everything that I find so frustrating about the state of the foreign policy debate as it plays out in the media and between the campaigns. I am sure I plenty of people have already noted the quick points I am about to make, but I think they need to be hammered home repeatedly to emphasize just how disappointing last night was.
The question on Libya was as follows: “We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in Benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans. Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?” This is a foreign policy question, but only in the loosest sense. It isn’t about what President Obama or Mitt Romney see as their foreign policy priorities, what they view as the greatest foreign policy challenges over the next four years, how they assess changes in the world that have taken place during the last decade, or even a question challenging Obama on his overarching foreign policy decisions during his first term. Instead, it is a question about one small specific event that is actually a budgetary question disguised as a foreign policy question. This question would have been better even had it been framed around whether Obama views Libya as a priority, or to what extent he thinks we can shape events in Libya, or whether the U.S. should even have a real presence in Libya given the current security situation there. But no, instead we got a question about how State Department budgetary issues are decided as the sole foreign policy entry last night. Did Candy Crowley actually think that this was the best question of the lot to select? Even if she wanted to make sure there was a question about Libya since it has been such a hot campaign topic lately, was this actually the best one? It either reflects very poorly on the pool of undecided Long Island voters in the debate hall last night, or it reflects very poorly on Crowley’s ability to select questions that will get to the real heart of issues.
Furthermore, the question itself is a nonsensical one to ask any president. In what universe does the president, his senior staff, or any of his cabinet members make specific security decisions about protection for consulates? Leaving aside the fact that host countries are responsible for security outside of embassies and other diplomatic missions – which I don’t expect your random voter to know – how could anyone with capacity to think logically believe that this is something that falls under the president’s purview? And again, if Crowley wanted to hold Obama’s feet to the fire on Libya, wasn’t there a better question out there to select that would actually challenge Obama on something he could control or something that emanated directly from a decision that he made?
Finally, the resulting back and forth about whether Obama called what occured a terrorist attack or a demonstration is perhaps the best example of why our foreign policy discourse is so terrible. Our consulate was attacked and our ambassador was murdered, and the campaigns are not arguing over the underlying causes behind this tragedy or how to prevent a similar one from occurring, but over how it was described! Seriously, is this what voters actually care about? I assume they must, since if the Romney campaign did not have data showing that this line of attack was gaining Romney some traction, they wouldn’t be wasting their time. I just don’t get how this, of all issues, is deemed to be so vital to informing voters that it was the one foreign policy moment of the night. The rhetoric issue is so minute and makes so little difference to anything, and yet it keeps on getting brought up and argued over despite the fact that it won’t have any lasting effect and nobody will even remember it a few months from now.
Foreign policy takes up the majority of a president’s time, and this goes double given the instability in so many parts of the world right now. The debate next week is going to be devoted to foreign policy, and let’s all cross our fingers and hope that the questions deal with some actual foreign policy rather than silly and inconsequential blather.