So Much for the Foreign Policy Election

By Erin Simpson

Well, after last minute "will-he-or-won't-he" drama, it looks like we're gonna have ourselves a debate tonight. But will it focus on foreign policy (the agreed upon topic) or instead the bailout and this week's market histrionics? That seems like anybody's guess. And while my professional interests are generally confined to counter-insurgency and related military matters, I don't think the candidates are going to get any points in the David Galula drinking game tonight. Here's what I'll be looking for in the debate:

1) An understanding that the financial crisis and resulting bailouts do not exist in a vacuum. They affect the candidates' options for both foreign and domestic policy. We can save the latter discussion for the next debate. Tonight, I want to hear how these recent events may affect Pentagon procurement, planned "plus-ups" for the Army and Marine Corps, and other international commitments.

2) Reflection on the escalation and regionalization of the war in Afghanistan. Instead of "by, with and through" Afghans, we are increasingly fighting "near, over and against" Pakistanis in the tribal areas. This week brings reports of shots fired by Pakistani troops on US helicopters; the last several weeks have seen increased raids across the Pakistani border by US troops. How do these conditions on the ground fit into the candidates' Afghan strategy? How does the Pakistan question fit into the discussion of a "surge" for Afghanistan? And how would they balance the risks of possibly destabilizing the Pakistani government vs. allowing a sanctuary for Taliban fighters in the tribal areas?

3) Plans for improving civilian capacity, especially State and USAID. Are the candidates on board with Defense Secretary Robert Gates in asking for more funds for the Department of State? I'm interested in two things here: 1) an understanding that foreign policy is more than just military deployments, and 2) a realization that, thanks to Jesse Helms, we spent most of the 1990s gutting State and USAID, and now we're paying the price. We don't just need more soldiers and Marines, we need more diplomats and development officers. (And we need enough of them to allow for mid-career training rotations.)

4) Iraq. I'm actually much not interested in either candidate's plans for withdrawal from Iraq. (There's not a lot of daylight between them, when it comes down to it.) And I'm not interested in hearing them parse whether the surge "worked." What I want to see is just how far Iraq has fallen off the radar. Six months ago, this was going to be a foreign policy election. Now we're barely going to get a foreign policy debate... and I doubt what we do get will center on Iraq.

By Marisa Katz |  September 26, 2008; 3:48 PM ET
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After the experience we've had in the last eight years, I think it would be appropriate if the candidates were asked tonight what role they envision for their Vice President in foreign and national security policy.

It would be a worthwhile question even without that context, given that a large part of Sen. Biden's background is in the foreign policy field and that Gov. Palin is almost entirely ignorant of the subject. The fact is, though, that in the current administration the Vice President has played an outsized role, unlike that played by any previous occupant of the office. Among other things, this has meant that Americans (and other governments) have often had reason to question who speaks authoritatively for the American government, and Americans in uniform have occasionally had reason to wonder whether the formal chain of command between soldiers in the field and the Commander in Chief is the actual chain of command.

Posted by: jbritt3 | September 26, 2008 5:46 PM

Afghan strategy. What afghan strategy? Interesting news today of peace-negotiations with the Taleban emerging, brokered by the Saudis. (
Seems bin Laden can score up another victory?

Posted by: fnord1 | September 28, 2008 8:40 AM

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