This is a rush, unedited transcript of the presidential debate on foreign policy at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida on October 22, 2012:
Welcome and thanks, 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis and as a segue I want to ask about…Libya…talking point…Afghanistan in 2014, maybe, maybe not…talking point…Iraq!…horses and bayonets…Iran will never get nukes…talking point…the 1980s called and they want their foreign policy back…talking point…you want to cut defense…do not…do too…sequestration will NOT happen…liar, liar, pants on fire…talking point…Iran will NOT get nukes…the U.S. economy is bad…it’s better…it’s worse…I know how to fix it…you have never done foreign policy…Iran!…China is a big country far away, they do bad things to their money, it hurts us…it helps your off-shored investments…yours too…talking point…we are the world’s beacon of hope…did I mention Iran?…please vote for me…please vote for me.
This is only an approximation of how the “foreign policy” debate went. Still, the evening was a play for undecided voters in swing states—with the economy as the hook. An outside observer would be hard-pressed to believe that U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century had to do with anything beyond the Middle East; Afghanistan, Egypt, Israel, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Syria were all discussed at some length over the course of 90 minutes. What about Europe? China was debated briefly at the end, and received what seemed like cursory attention especially since much of the viewing audience had long gone over to watch baseball and football games. Governor Mitt Romney purposefully brought Latin America into the mix on the trade and economic front, but the issues were not pursued and were quickly dropped.
Nuclear proliferation? Global climate change? The South China Sea? Japan? The use of force? Nothing.
This was largely the fault of the moderator, who began promisingly enough with reference to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then, rather than following up with questions designed to elicit new and revealing answers, immediately inquired about Libya—allowing both candidates to jump into their trenches for set-piece, poll-tested sparring and fight yet another verbal war of attrition. There was nothing new here. The questions that followed were mind-numbingly predictable, and so were the answers.
After an introduction on Cuba, why not ask a logical first question such as “What do you do immediately upon hearing that Fidel Castro has died?” That would reveal the instincts of the commander-in-chief in unpredictable crisis management—addressing historic changes 90 miles from the United States. Or what about a question having to do with Mexico, where some 60,000 people have died in the past several years due to cartel-on-cartel violence fueled by the drug trade? That is not occurring 90 miles from U.S. territory, but literally on our southern border. Does that matter? Is that not more important to the security and well-being of the United States than, say, Libya?
The list of questions is limitless, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. But why is it that the line that is drawn by debate moderators—wherever it is—invariably excludes the geographic neighborhood in which we ourselves live? Perhaps if the candidates were asked about Latin America from time to time, the message would be sent that the region matters as a foreign policy issue. Because, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it does.
Eric Farnsworth is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is vice president of the Council of the Americas in Washington DC.