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The US' crucial foreign policy debate

Voters seem to be tired of the presidential campaign as the candidates are preparing to spar over foreign policy.
Last modified: 22 Oct 2012 08:11
Romney and Obama are gearing up for a debate focusing on foreign policy [EPA}

I am once again on a plane, this time travelling to Florida for the final presidential debate.

I know it’s beginning to seem like a bit of theme - fly somewhere, write a blog. In my defence I’ve been doing a lot of flying. I like airports and planes because you can easily eavesdrop on conversations. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. I find it’s a good way to get a sense of what people are thinking without having to tell them you are a reporter.

What I can tell you after so many thousands of miles is that Americans are really tired of this election. I understand their exhaustion; the campaign has been going on for more than a year. But it’s not just the length that I think poses a problem; it’s the way US campaigns are run these days.

If you happen to live in one of the states that will determine the outcome of this election, the only way to escape the election is to stop answering your door, or your phone, don’t pick up your mail, turn off your TV and radio and don’t look up while driving. The campaigns are everywhere. But you won’t learn much of anything from absorbing the material they put out. And most of the television commercials tell viewers nothing more than that their opponent is Satan incarnate.

The commentators aren’t helping because they are only focusing on the political horse race. It’s the never-ending questions, who will win and how? I believe people are just done with the constant punditry, prognostication and polls. This election, in my opinion, is too close to call. Anyone who thinks they know, or claim to know, how this is going to turn out is lying.

The candidates themselves tend to bend the truth on the campaign trail too. But I do agree with them on one major point – this election is crucial. I’m not one who subscribes to the theory that US presidents are deities with the ability to determine the future of all existence. Still, as far as international diplomacy and security go, it’s a pretty important job. Again, not news to anyone, but the actions of the US president can have a pretty serious impact around the world – for better or worse.

If you need proof, ponder Libya for a moment. President Barack Obama decided, on his own, to intervene, to send in fighter jets and pick a side. The laws in the US say he can continue to use military force as long as Congress approves the action after the first 60 days. Those 60 days came and went, and the president never asked permission to continue. At the time, he said it wasn’t really a “conflict” because the Americans were in the air, not on the ground. I couldn’t help but think the people who were near the bombs that dropped must have thought it felt like conflict.

In the end, a few members of Congress complained, but that was it. That is the power of the presidency in the realm of foreign policy. In this system of government if the president wants to create laws he needs Congress to pass them. If he wants to pass a budget, again he needs that other branch of government to agree. When it comes to foreign policy, and the sovereignty and security of the US, the president has the ultimate say. He’s the Commander-in-Chief. He sits in the room with world leaders, sets the US agenda and - literally - keeps nuclear codes in his suit pocket.

That is why I am actually excited to listen to this next debate, even if my legs are cramping slightly in my coach seat and the passenger next to me keeps giving me the elbow to the ribs - who decides who owns the arm rest anyway?

So far, the debates have featured a lot of bullet-point plans, promises and generalities, but very few specifics. But I believe foreign policy is much harder to cloak in confusion these days. You can’t just throw out numbers to make it seem like you know what you are talking about. To the candidates: If you say you will be tough with Iran, what does that mean? Are you ready to go to war? If you announce your intention to declare China a “currency manipulator,” I hope you’ll tell the American people the consequences of that action.

In my opinion, the moderator for this debate - Bob Shieffer - is one of the best in the industry. He doesn’t pretend to be the smartest person in the room like so many Washington beltway types. He asks the questions Americans would if they could and they need to be asked and answered.

As I mentioned before, the president is the only one who can makes final decisions on foreign policy, and that is the topic of this week’s debate. So, with an hour left of my flight, I ask of the candidates: show me why you would be different in the area that is literally about life and death. The polls suggest that foreign policy is not factoring that highly on the minds of American voters this election, but if you think about, maybe it should.