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Is the foreign policy debate irrelevant?

President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney will meet for the third and final presidential debate Monday night to discuss foreign policy. It is a broad topic that was sidelined in the first debate on domestic issues and engendered only one question at the candidate’s subsequent tete-a-tete, a town-hall meeting.

At last, we will hear the candidates’ uninterrupted views on America’s security. The debate’s topics have already been disclosed by moderator Bob Schieffer. They include the usual cast of ominous characters: the long war in Afghanistan, the red lines of Iran and Israel, the rising power of China, and the changing Middle East. Another query, on “America’s role in the world,” could be a softball or a snoozer, but might also be quite revealing.


Nonetheless, the night may not be greeted with the rapt attention that attended the other two. The foreign policy debate is fighting an uphill battle for relevance not only because of the condition of our economy, the fight over our taxes, and the looming fiscal cliff. It is because, for those who remember other recent debates on international affairs, the gap between what was asked and what the winning candidate actually faced as president has been wide.

A candidate’s policy towards Iran, Afghanistan, or China will have to share center stage with the unpredicted, the incidental, and the utterly dramatic once he becomes president or wins a second term. The stylized theatrics of a debate stand in sharp contrast to the randomness of the world.

“I am not going to make unilateral cuts in our strategic defense systems or support some freeze when they [the Soviet Union] have superiority. I’m not going to do that, because I think the jury is still out on the Soviet experiment,” Vice President George H. W. Bush stated on Sep. 25, 1988, when he faced Governor Michael Dukakis. The jury would soon rule; the Berlin Wall fell just over a year later. Eastern Europeans realized they were being governed by a spent ideology and weak captor. The Soviet empire would dissolve by the end of Bush’s presidency. Strategic defense debates were replaced by diplomatic challenges in a new, open Europe.


Later, after low-grade military missions under President Bill Clinton (author David Halberstam entitled his book “War in a Time of Peace,” to describe Clinton’s global interventions in the 1990s), Governor George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore met on Oct. 22, 2000 for their second debate. The rising threat known as Osama bin Laden was, famously, not mentioned. In light of 9/11, it’s difficult to take seriously that evening’s litany of concerns — Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, and Somalia.

It was Bush who criticized Gore for his interventionist tendencies. In that debate, the Texas governor was intent on moving American interests back to this hemisphere. His desire was reflected in his first months in office; President Bush met with Mexican President Vicente Fox five times before 19 hijackers altered everyone’s orientation.

In 2008, President Obama won the White House by challenging candidate John McCain’s interventionist tendencies at a time when Americans clearly had tired of such forays. Any mention of an “Arab Spring” would have prompted head scratching by both the candidates and the audience. And while it seems ages ago, the first international crisis Obama faced was neither terrorism nor a counter-insurgency. It was an exceptionally lethal virus known as H1N1 making its way quickly from Mexico and putting pressure on the administration to close the borders.


A foreign policy debate is about known threats and how a prospective president would address them. But it is the unknowns, the unpredictable crises, that define an actual president’s tenure: maybe, over the next four years, it could be a fight over access to resources in the melting Arctic, or a mass migration from Cuba following the death of Fidel Castro, or the rise of fascism in a troubled Europe.

As one former government official explained, “You think you are having a great day until teenage Somali pirates take over a cruise liner.” And yet, there are no pirate questions on Monday night’s docket.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter @juliettekayyem