Opinion

What was missing from Monday night’s debate

Photo of Brian Kelly
Brian Kelly
Assistant Editor, The New Criterion

Obama may have won Monday night’s debate, but in terms of substance neither candidate had much to offer. While economic and social issues have been a source of aggressive contention throughout the race, both men were in agreement on just about everything related to foreign policy, from drones to Israel. This is largely the consequence of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus that has existed for decades. And yet a number of important countries and major foreign policy issues weren’t discussed Monday night. Here are a few of the biggest:

Pretty much every country that isn’t Iran, Syria, Libya, Pakistan, Russia, or China: North Korea only got one mention, which shows that, when it comes to global security, the U.S. is focused almost exclusively on the Middle East. Considering how much time was spent discussing Tehran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it’s disturbing that neither candidate seemed interested in Pyongyang even though we know the North Koreans have nuclear capabilities and earlier this month North Korean officials claimed to have missiles that can reach the U.S. mainland.

Similarly, Cuba was only brought up once — by moderator Bob Schieffer, who noted that Monday night’s debate fell on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s first address about the Cuban missile crisis. Four years ago, many held high hopes for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. But the fact that neither candidate bothered to mention the country means that little change is likely to happen after the election, even though America’s stance toward Cuba is outdated and taking pragmatic steps to improve the situation — like removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror (which happened to Libya and North Korea in 2006 and 2008, respectively) — would solve “a problem far simpler than many other global issues.”

Africa — aside from Libya and Egypt — was barely mentioned, and when it was, it was mostly in reference to Middle East policy. Romney, for instance, warned of al-Qaida’s presence in Mali and said the U.S. should treat Ahmadinejad’s diplomats “like the pariah they are … the same way we treated the apartheid diplomats of South Africa.”

India and Brazil weren’t brought up once, despite their impressive growth rates and relatively strong relationships with the U.S. Haiti, the second largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, seems to only garner attention when it gets hit by a hurricane and was similarly excluded from mention.

And then there’s Palestine. Despite the intense focus on Israel (two questions were dedicated to the topic), Palestine only came up once, when Romney asked if Palestinians and Israelis were any closer to a peace agreement than they were four years ago (you can probably guess what he thought). By completely ignoring Palestine, both candidates projected a belief that Israel’s security and the stability of the Middle East can be realized via unilateral, top-down policies that fail to even consider alternative viewpoints. Regardless of one’s beliefs about the proper resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, any real progress will need to involve the PLO; ignoring the organization will only further derail the peace process.

Human rights issues in Russia and China: While both candidates called for expanded women’s rights around the globe, there was little serious discussion of human rights Monday night. The lack of emphasis on the issue was most conspicuous during the questions regarding Russia and China. Both countries have had massive problems in this area, ranging from Russia’s dubious election practices and prison camp sentences for members of Pussy Riot to China’s ongoing censorship and issues with Tibet. By not talking about human rights, the candidates sent a message that, as long as a country can help America — say, through support on the United Nations Security Council or beneficial economic policies — Washington will look the other way when it comes to unsavory internal policies.