What was missing from Monday night’s debate

Brian Kelly Assistant Editor, The New Criterion
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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country means that little change is likely to happen after the election, even though America’s stance toward Cuba is outdated and taking pragmatic steps to improve the situation — like removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror (which happened to Libya and North Korea in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.

Drug policy: Apparently, Latin America being in our time zone is more salient to U.S. foreign policy than any discussion relating to drugs. As I’ve written for The New Criterion, the multibillion-dollar government boondoggle that is the war on drugs has proven a complete failure by every measure. Domestically, incarceration rates are sky high, usage is up, and drugs remain cheap and plentiful. Ludicrously inefficient programs like Operation Fast and Furious have killed Americans and foreigners alike, and from the poppy fields in the Middle East to PLAN Colombia, America’s eradication efforts have seen no benefits. Furthermore, to discuss Latin America without looking at the drug-related violence that has torn apart the region, from Honduras to Guatemala to Mexico, is to ignore the most pressing issue facing that part of the world.

Europe’s finances: Other than Romney’s two “road to Greece” references criticizing Obama’s handling of the economy, Europe was only really mentioned once, in its role as an ally. As The Guardian reports, few European outlets seem to take issue with the candidates’ decision to avoid discussion of the European economy.

Surveillance and targeted killings: There was some talk about drones, but no mention of America’s even more controversial policies. Both candidates were happy to leave citizens in the dark about the “kill lists” that led to the death of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and tactics, like warrantless surveillance, that are increasingly being used against Americans.

Climate change: Despite returning to the topic of energy during every debate, neither candidate talked about climate change. In fact, this was the first time in 24 years that climate change wasn’t mentioned during the presidential debates. While clean energy and energy independence might be good starting points for a discussion, these don’t even begin to address climate change, a major issue that requires a unified, global approach. The importance of a foreign policy dedicated to addressing climate change is evident when you consider that America’s carbon emissions are outpaced only by China’s, and the other top-emitting countries are Russia and India, none of which are likely to slow their carbon output without opening a dialogue about the environment.

I’ve written before about the contrived nature of presidential debates, and Monday night’s performance did little to change my perception. While the preceding issues are certainly on the candidates’ radars to one degree or another, their complete exclusion during the debate is an affront to both voters and the global community. Glenn Greenwald’s takeaway was apt: “That was just a wretched debate, with almost no redeeming qualities. It was substance-free, boring, and suffuse with empty platitudes. … The vast majority of the most consequential foreign policy matters (along with the world’s nations) were completely ignored in lieu of their same repetitive slogans on the economy. … In sum, it was a perfect microcosm of America’s political culture.”

Without a doubt, the economy is the biggest issue in this election, but to discuss Israel without even acknowledging the existence of Palestine, to treat Latin America as some sort of untapped economic Arcadia while ignoring the violence ripping apart the region, to discuss the danger of nuclear states and not mention North Korea portends a narrow-sighted and potentially disastrous U.S. foreign policy — regardless of who is elected.

Brian Kelly is a freelance writer, the assistant editor at The New Criterion, and a recent graduate of Brown University.