Political unrest and violence in the Mideast are unsettling to American interests in the region in the short term. Kevin Frayer/The Associated Press
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Closely-fought presidential campaigns can confound expectations by constricting — rather than broadening — public debate about significant policy issues, a phenomenon most recently on display during the debate between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Rep. Paul D. Ryan.

The two men, offering a preview of the foreign policy issues expected to arise at the Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney, mostly competed to demonstrate the muscularity of their teams’ approaches to a vexing set of international challenges.

Each vowed their party would play tough with Iran and stick by the current hard line leadership in Israel; spend whatever is needed for critical U.S. military operations and forces; safely extract U.S. troops from Afghanistan; and efficiently engineer the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

Ryan argued that Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon has been relentless, and that it is closer now to achieving its goal than it was when Obama won election. Biden responded that Iran is more isolated now than ever before, and said international sanctions are seriously harming the Iranian economy.

Both men were actually right, but their convictions masked the fact that much mystery remains about how the drama over the Iranian program will play out.

Will the toll of tough sanctions eventually cause Iranian citizens to sack their leadership and reverse course? Could that happen soon? Will the sanctions — or the threat of the government’s ouster by its own citizens — convince Iran’s leaders never to mate fissile materials with the other components of a working bomb? Or will the heightened foreign pressures only goad Iran to move faster and farther along the nuclear path?

Public opinion polling on Iran is generally poor, and rife with tendentious or misleading questions. But there is general support for pursuing sanctions before undertaking any military action against Iran — the course the administration is now on. At the same time, neither candidate was candid enough to say frankly, “Look, we don’t know how this is going to turn out, and there are no guarantees.”

Nor did either candidate say much about the consequences of what many politicians in Washington claim is the only alternative to sanctions, namely a sizable military attack on Iran. Biden skirted the question by asserting that “it is not in my purview to talk about classified information, but we feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians.” He warned vaguely that the outcome “could prove catastrophic, if we didn’t do it with precision,” but did not explain how such strikes might be considered “precise” when some Iranian air defenses and other key targets are located near many Iranian civilians. Ryan ducked the issue entirely.

The contours of the debate were also too narrow to touch on claims by some intelligence and regional experts that Iran’s attainment of a full or near-weapons capability might not be as dangerous as the Israeli leadership — and Obama and Romney — have asserted. Since Obama promised, as his campaign for reelection shifted into high gear, that America will not let Iran get a nuclear bomb, dissent over that absolutist posture has mostly been relegated to a few academic journals.

Citing Ambassador Chris Stevens’ violent death in Benghazi, Libya, Ryan said that “what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy,” which he said was making America less safe. Biden responded by trying to shift the topic to U.S. slaying of Osama Bin Laden, and by blaming the intelligence community for initially attributing Stevens’ death to a mob, rather than a death squad.

What neither man said was that the political forces transforming the Middle East over the past two years have proved largely immune to U.S. political influence, and that the history of U.S. foreign policy is replete with interventions around the world that have had unpredictable consequences. Were those mistakes, or simply a reminder of the need for humility?

On the issue of defense spending, Ryan drew from a script shared with his Republican colleagues in the House. He misleadingly called the Obama administration’s decision to halt a previously planned budget increase and keep Pentagon funding mostly level a devastating funding “cut.” He also said his party believes “in peace through strength” — a favorite phrase in at least eight Republican presidential platforms. “If these cuts go through, our Navy will be the smallest — the smallest it has been since before World War I,” Ryan said.

The size of the Navy has been steadily declining for years, as individual ships become increasingly capable. And Biden responded indignantly that the budget changes embraced by Obama were requested by the military. But he did not mention that the military service chiefs did so only after Obama and his top national security advisers decided in 2011 — as part of their new economic policies — to shoehorn the Pentagon’s decade-long spending plan into a box roughly 7 percent smaller.

Biden also did not mention that Panetta, in a letter to lawmakers last year, had himself cited the same statistic about the Navy while warning against further cuts that could be imposed early next year under a budget “sequestration” plan approved by both parties. The plan would come into effect if they failed to reach accord about tax hikes and other spending cuts.

Neither debater mentioned that the public — after being informed about how much the United States is actually spending on the nation’s defense — overwhelmingly wants to cut it by more than the leaders of both political parties do. This support extends to all age groups, both genders, both parties, and residents of both red and blue congressional districts, according to an April survey by the Center for Public Integrity, the Stimson Center, and the Program for Public Consultation.

The two men also quarreled over the timing of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan: Ryan asserted that more soldiers should have stayed there this year to consolidate battlefield gains, and Biden responded that a quick pace was needed to pressure Afghanistan to assume responsibility for its own security and to meet a deadline for complete withdrawal by 2014.

As they strove to show how the war effort can still achieve its goals, neither debater mentioned how unpopular the war has become, or said what most Americans now believe, according to an Aug. 28 summary of public opinion polling by the Council on Foreign Relations: Namely, that it won’t be successful, has not been worth the costs, and has not improved U.S. security.

In the Center’s own survey, 85 percent of respondents expressed support for a statement that said in part, “it is time for the Afghan people to manage their own country and for us to bring our troops home.” A majority of respondents backed an immediate cut, on average, of $38 billion in the war’s existing $88 billion budget, or around 43 percent.

“In the context of presidential debates on foreign policy, candidates are often not genuinely engaging the policy questions, especially when it comes to questions about the use of military force,” said Steven Kull, a political psychologist who runs the Program on International Policy Attitudes, affiliated with the University of Maryland. “Rather the goal is to project that they have vital animal spirits, expressed in their readiness to use military force, which will intimidate other nations. They will even take positions that are considerably more aggressive than those of the public — such as talking about a military strike against Iran — to get this point across.”

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R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...