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Lindsay: The Foreign Policy Debate

Interviewee: James M. Lindsay, Tom Slick Chair for International Affairs and Director, Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law, University of Texas, Austin
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
September 29, 2008

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James M. Lindsay, an expert on U.S. foreign policy and a former director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says the first presidential debate between Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) was "not a game changer." He does think, however, that Obama, with admittedly less background in foreign affairs than McCain, was able to get over an important threshold.

 

On the issues that came up on the economy I had the impression that both candidates were in effect punting because they did not know what the outcome of the Capitol Hill negotiations would be.

The opening discussion on the economic crisis was unsatisfying. It was clearly unsatisfying to the moderator, Jim Lehrer, who wanted them to say if they were for or against the pending bill. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama skirted that issue. They outlined principles they wanted to adhere to, in terms of evaluating the bill, but gave no straightforward answers.

It may have been that they really didn't know what was actually being discussed in private in Washington. It was a moving playing field, wasn't it?

Both McCain and Obama were at a disadvantage in that there was not an agreed-upon deal on the table you could read and evaluate. One of the cardinal rules of politics is that you can be on the winning side or you can be on the losing side of an issue, but you never want to be on the wrong side of an issue. To endorse a bill that has not been written yet is a bit perilous. Both candidates wished to avoid being pinned down until there was actually something there to react to.

On foreign affairs, the first impression I got was that Senator McCain wanted to make everyone aware that he had pushed for the surge in Iraq and that the surge had been successful and that Senator Obama had been against the surge and therefore showed he was not as wise or experienced as he was. Do you agree?

Yes. Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama had a message they brought to the debate. Senator McCain's message was clear: "Obama is naïve and inexperienced and is not ready to be commander-in-chief." For Senator Obama, his message seemed to be that John McCain was aligned with a failed policy from the Bush administration and that he, Barack Obama, contrary to Senator McCain's charges, actually knew a lot about foreign policy, and that events have vindicated the issues he had staked out in foreign policy.

He was pointing to Afghanistan, primarily, right?

Obama pointed to several things. One, that it was a strategic blunder of historic proportions for the United States to have invaded Iraq, that it took our eye off Afghanistan, off of al-Qaeda, and that we now have two wars that are costing the United States a tremendous amount of blood and treasure. That was the gist of Obama's argument. McCain's retort was not to focus on the wisdom of going into Iraq. He studiously avoided that topic. Instead, Senator McCain just pressed on the issue of the surge, that he had been right on the surge and that Obama had said the surge was wrong. McCain again insisted it was the right thing to do.

So much time was taken up on Iraq and Afghanistan there wasn't much time for much else. Iran was raised. What did you think of that?

This was one of the surprising things about the way the debate unfolded. It was due partly to the decision to begin by talking about the financial crisis and partly to the format. Most of the debate was spent on a very small number of foreign policy issues, focusing on Iraq, Afghanistan to a degree, and Russia a bit. A lot of issues that you would have expected to have come to the forefront weren't discussed-the rise of China, what to do about North Korea, international  economic competitiveness, foreign trade, relationships with Latin America, and the Middle East peace process. On the specific issue of Iran, both McCain and Obama traded policy positions they have articulated time and again on the campaign trail. So there was nothing new to people who have been following the campaign for some time. It came down to McCain ridiculing Obama for being willing to talk to Iranian leaders and Obama saying the United States had to be ready to talk to our adversaries as well as our friends.

Some commentaries have said that it was important for Senator Obama to "appear presidential." Do you think he passed that test and is that really an issue?

That is the big question of the day. What are people looking for? Most of the people who visit CFR.org regularly know a lot about the issues, and are looking to the debate carefully to see if there is anything new in what the candidates say. But most of the people watching the debate are not following the campaign closely. Therefore, much of what is being said is new to them. Because of that, many of the specific policy issues pass by them. Many people watching could probably not identify who Admiral [Mike] Mullen [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] is or General [David] Petraeus [commander of U.S. Central Command, former commander of forces in Iraq]. And some of the technical terms people in the foreign policy community use with ease are also missed.

Therefore, most of the people watching the foreign policy debate are probably trying to get a sense of the candidates themselves as people and as potential leaders. Last night the different temperaments and styles and decision-making approaches of the two candidates were on full display. It was in many ways the fighter pilot and the law school professor. You saw Senator McCain being very aggressive, on the attack, trying to paint his opponent as naïve and inexperienced. You had Senator Obama being very cool, very calm, unflappable in many ways in response to McCain's criticisms, laying out his policy positions and making the case that he actually has command of foreign policy issues. That's where the debate may have ultimately helped Obama more than McCain. The criticism going in, which McCain made throughout the evening, was that Obama was naïve and inexperienced. Obama was probably able to convey a fairly good command of foreign policy issues. Even his critics have to agree that even if Obama doesn't know more about foreign policy than Senator McCain, he knows enough.

That's probably the key threshold that most Americans are judging the candidates on.

Of course Senator McCain was trying to stress his experience, how many countries he has visited, including the outer provinces of Pakistan, places like South Waziristan. I guess if you are looking for someone experienced in world affairs, you might tip your vote to McCain.

Certainly. The debate allowed both candidates to display their strengths. McCain clearly emphasized that he is experienced; he has been there; he knows the leaders; he doesn't need on the job training; he doesn't need training wheels for being commander-in-chief. The big question is going to be how this is going to resonate with the broader public. Again, the public is  trying to take a much broader view of the candidates, not focusing simply on positions on foreign policy, but getting a broad measure of each man on an array of issues, and there are a couple of more debates. One of the wild cards in all of this is whether there is going to be a skit on SNL [Saturday Night Live] or on the Daily Show that really plays off last night's debate or a future debate in ways that exaggerates one candidate's strength and another candidate's weakness. The process of deciding what these debates mean will take a few days to shake out.

Some commentators have drawn the obvious comparison that Senator McCain is older than Senator Obama and certainly on TV McCain looks like a vigorous seventy-two year old and Obama a vigorous forty-seven year old. Does that mean anything?

No doubt, your age and demeanor play into how the public understands the debate. People go all the way back to the [Richard] Nixon- [John F.] Kennedy debate in 1960, when according to the conventional wisdom, Nixon "lost" the debate because he was sweating and looked uncomfortable. Then again, if you go back to Ronald Reagan vs. Walter Mondale in 1964, Reagan made clear age was not an issue, but was to his advantage, so it is hard to say in the abstract how that will shake out. Certainly, both candidates showed they are vigorous sand passionate about becoming president of the United States.

What the debate did lack was Reagan's sense of humor. Neither of them is known particularly for his humorous asides on the podium.

You're right. Neither candidate has the ability to connect emotionally with the audience in the way Ronald Reagan could, making a humorous aside, telling a compelling anecdote. But they have other strengths.

Next week, we will have another debate between Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) and Governor Sarah Palin. All the expections are that Senator Biden will cream her. What do you think?

Two points on the Biden-Palin debate. Point number one is that this is a very difficult debate for Joe Biden. In some ways he is locked into a lose-lose situation. He has much more experience on the foreign affairs side than Governor Palin does. But he really runs the risk, when he starts to display his great knowledge, of looking like a know-it-all, or of appearing condescending to her. But if he tries to be circumspect in his discussion of foreign affairs, he cedes the platform to her. So it is a very tough challenge. The second point I would make is that vice president debates in the long run don't matter. We all remember how Lloyd Bentsen punctured Dan Quayle in 1988 with the remark that, "I knew John Kennedy and you are no John Kennedy." It did not really help the [Michael] Dukakis-Bentsen ticket much that November.

Are you an announced supporter of either candidate?

No. And I am not an adviser to either candidate.

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