from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Foreign Policy Puzzles of the Vice Presidential Debate

October 12, 2012

Paul Ryan and Joe Biden at the conclusion of the U.S. vice presidential debate on October 11, 2012, in Danville, Kentucky (Pool New/Courtesy Reuters).
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Although likely U.S. voters are evenly split between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney, nearly all Americans agree that foreign policy issues are not important in this election. The latest poll found that only 6 percent think “foreign policy and the Middle East” is the most important issue. However, last night’s vice presidential debate devoted a significant amount of time on foreign policy questions, perhaps because moderator Martha Raddatz (who actually moderated) previously covered the Pentagon and the State Department, and is now a senior foreign affairs correspondent for ABC News.

Since Raddatz asked the questions and demanded specific answers, several hot-button foreign policy issues were raised, such as the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the suspected nuclear weapons program in Iran, the protracted conflict in Syria, and the near-forgotten war in Afghanistan. In response, both vice presidential candidates gave statements that are misleading or wishful thinking.

Ryan: “If we had the status of forces agreement [in Iraq]…we probably would have been able to prevent [Iranian flights suspected of carrying weapons to Syria].” Here, Ryan echoes what the Wall Street Journal military planning staff determined last month: “The Iranian overflights…would not happen if the U.S. still had an airbase in Iraq to secure the country’s airspace.”

Would Ryan have supported maintaining U.S. troops in Iraq without Baghdad providing immunity protections? The United States currently has 225 troops, 530 security assistance team members, and over 4,000 contractors to equip and train Iraqi security forces via the Office of Security Cooperation Iraq. Would Ryan support these troops and personnel attempting to intercept Iranian flights?  Does Ryan believe that the government of Iraq would allow the United States to intercept aircraft over its sovereign territory?

Ryan: “When Barack Obama was elected, they had enough fissile material—nuclear material to make one bomb. Now they have enough for five.” Ryan should have added: “If the material was further enriched at Iran’s declared nuclear sites where the IAEA does routine physical inventory verifications, which would quickly detect such activity.”

Biden: “There is no weapon that the Iranians have at this point. Both the Israelis and we know if they start the process of building a weapon.” Biden added, “They’re closer to being able to get enough fissile material to put in a weapon if they had a weapon.” What Biden fails to mention is that the creation of a workable HEU-fueled nuclear device isn’t the biggest hurdle for Iran. One of the items that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan shopped around on the nuclear black market was the blueprint for a Chinese-designed twelve kiloton warhead, which was successfully tested in 1966. Furthermore, even if Iran did not receive Chinese nuclear blueprints, Biden knows that it would not be overly difficult for Iranian engineers to manufacture a crude nuclear device. As he told an arms control conference in 2004:

When I was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee…I gathered the heads of all the national laboratories and some of their subordinates in [the Capitol]. I asked them a simple question. I said I would like you to go back to your laboratory and try to assume for a moment you are a relatively informed terrorist group with access to some nuclear scientists. Could you build, off-the-shelf, a nuclear device? Not a dirty bomb, but something that would start a nuclear reaction—an atomic bomb. Could you build one? They came back several months later and said, “We built one.”… I literally asked the laboratories to physically take this device into the Senate…it was bigger than a breadbox and smaller than a dump truck but they were able to get it in. They literally put it in a room and showed and explained how—literally off-the-shelf, without doing anything illegal—they actually constructed this device.

Biden: “We are leaving [Afghanistan]. We are leaving in 2014, period.” The full withdrawal of all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan is not the current position of the Obama administration. On October 3, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the appointment of Ambassador James Warlick, deputy special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to lead the negotiations for an agreement that would keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan for an undefined period of time. Reportedly, “Western officials have mentioned the residual American force as ranging from a few thousand to some 20,000.” In addition, some U.S. policymakers assume that Afghanistan will serve as hub for special operations raids and drone strikes into Pakistan. Does Biden support the scheduled pull out of U.S. forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 or not?  Would the government of Afghanistan agree?

At the same time, Ryan and Biden did agree on one point. They both think that they have total clairvoyance into the mind of the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ryan: “Let’s look at this from the view of the ayatollahs. What do they see?” In response, Biden declared, “Let me tell you what the ayatollah sees.”

Understanding the mindset of Ayatollah Khamenei is essential for efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the Senate: “Iran’s technical advances, particularly in uranium enrichment, strengthen our assessment that Iran is well-capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium for a weapon if its political leaders, specifically the supreme leader himself, choose to do so.”

This notion that U.S. policymakers—in a redux of the movie Being John Malkovich—can step into the shoes of a seventy-three-year-old Shiite theocrat and accurately comprehend what he sees and believes is lunacy. More accurately, it is what psychologists call the illusion of transparency, where “people overestimate others’ ability to know them, and they also overestimate their ability to know others.” The self-assuredness is also particularly dangerous for assessing the motives of repressive leaders. The recently declassified CIA review of how the intelligence community misunderstood Saddam Hussein’s motivations to refuse to fully reveal Iraq’s WMD programs should temper Ryan and Biden’s faith in their ability to think like the ayatollah:

“Analysts tend to focus on what was most important to us—the hunt for WMD—and less on what would be most important for a paranoid dictatorship to protect…Deceptions were perpetrated and detected, but the reasons for those deceptions were misread.”