Politics & Government

Commentary: Why the foreign policy debate matters

At the foreign policy debate Friday night — or possibly later — Democrat Barack Obama deserves tough questioning every bit as much as Republicans John McCain. Two successive presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, have mishandled the issue of terrorism to the detriment of America’s national security and standing in the world, and both have acted erratically in their use of force. But neither party admits to mistakes in practically any area of foreign policy.

It's just 10 years since Bill Clinton made one of the most fateful omissions of his presidency. In August 1998, al Qaida operatives under Osama bin Laden’s direction carried out devastating attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Clinton's only response was a military "quick fix" – ordering missiles to be fired at empty Al Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

But he never crafted a broad, long-term response to curb bin Laden and choke off his international movement. Bin Laden's driver, Salim Hamdan, told his U.S. interrogators at Guantanamo that Clinton's failure to act after the 1998 bombings and the attack on the USS Cole in late 2000 "emboldened" bin Laden to carry out the 9/11 attacks.

But Madeleine Albright, Clinton's secretary of state in his second term, wouldn't do anything differently. "Given what we knew and what we were doing, we did the best we could with the intelligence we had and the atmosphere we had," she told me for a book I wrote on the strategic foreign policy failure underlying 9/11. "I don't have the sense that we failed in any way…we did the right thing."

In fact, ousting the ruling Taliban from power in Afghanistan required only minimal effort, as President George W. Bush demonstrated after 9/11.

Yet seven years after Bush ordered the military invasion of Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO are losing ground to a resurgent Taliban, backed by the remnants of Al Qaida.

Bush, just like Clinton, never developed a comprehensive strategy for curbing the Taliban and isolating al Qaida, which has settled into Pakistan's tribal areas and now threatens the stability of Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. (Bush's top military adviser told Congress on the anniversary of 9/11 that he is now developing such a strategy.)

Then there's Iraq. Five and a half years after Bush launched a pre-emptive war in Iraq, based on flawed intelligence and distorted claims of the threat to U.S. security, the discussion has been framed around the unanswerable question of whether the U.S. is winning or not &dmash; rather than the lessons that should be learned from this costly adventure.

So here are some questions that should be asked of the two candidates and their vice presidential nominees (and here's hoping reporters get beyond meaningless questions like who's wearing a flag in his lapel):

Afghanistan: Clinton shied away from using force against the Taliban, and Bush used force without any plan. Clinton's aides admit they could have revised policy but instead listened to supporters in Congress, who preferred to impose sanctions on Pakistan than seek its cooperation against the Taliban. How would Barack Obama see that the long-term national interest prevails in future — rather than the agenda of a major party constituency? And does John McCain have a long-term strategy in Afghanistan?

Continuity: George Bush approached foreign policy with an "anything but Clinton" attitude (as did Clinton with Bush's father). How will Obama and McCain, both of whom say they are seeking meaningful change, avoid discarding Bush policies that may be in the national interest?

Pakistan: Bush has apparently ordered cross-border raids and continued bombings in Pakistan, arousing national opposition -- and both Obama and McCain say they’d do the same thing. Do the candidates see a risk of destabilizing the democratically elected government of Pakistan? Is there a way to work with that government?

Iraq: Bush adopted the agenda of the neo-conservatives towards what he proclaimed as the "Axis of Evil": Iraq was a threat to U.S. security, North Korea was acquiring a capability to fire nuclear missiles at the United States, and Iran could not be talked to. What will a McCain administration do to assure that it has its facts right before it goes to war? And would an Obama administration support Joe Biden's repeated calls to partition Iraq along ethnic lines?

CIA: Tim Weiner in his book Legacy of Ashes argues that successive presidents invariably turn to the CIA to carry out foreign policy, because they can give orders for covert operations with minimal oversight and not be held publicly accountable when they go wrong. Do presidents rely too heavily on covert operations? What would the two candidates do differently?

Georgia: Do the two candidates want to tie NATO’s fortunes to a country that is highly exposed to Russian pressure, led by an impulsive nationalist and where western power is bound to be unable to succeed, especially as the alliance’s European members, reliant on Russian fuel supplies, are deeply divided?

Missile defense: George Bush abrogated the ABM treaty with Russia, and aroused enormous anger in Moscow as he proceeded unilaterally to set up an unproven missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland. Would either candidate proceed with that system or suspend it?

Iran: The Bush administration has not publicly discouraged Israel from a preemptive attack on Iran to destroy its nuclear fuel enrichment program, and some see this as a "yellow light" leading to intervention. John McCain once joked: "bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran." Does McCain really favor that course? If you want to avoid war, how would you resolve the issue?

Guantanamo: If they close down Guantanamo as both have promised, will the candidates propose any compensation or apology for detainees who'd been held without charges, without due process and in a number of cases in complete error? If the Bush administration broke the law by torturing detainees or holding them without due process, will either candidate seek court action against its top officials?

Bipartisan foreign policy: Two successive presidents seem to have promoted their party agendas in foreign policy. What will each candidate do to ensure that politics stops at the water's edge, and to center foreign policy on the long-term national interest?

Roy Gutman is McClatchy's foreign editor. His latest book, How We Missed the Story: Bin Laden, the Taliban and the Hijacking of Afghanistan, was published earlier this year by the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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