InsideCatholic is headquartered in Washington, D.C., but I write from Oxford, Mississippi. Oxford has a population of about 14,000, which approximately doubles when the University of Mississippi students are in town. So, as you might imagine, the presidential debate here at Ole Miss tonight — assuming it comes off — is a big deal. The whole town is gearing up. My parish, St. John the Evangelist, is even doing its part: Our newly built but not-yet-occupied church building, which is next to the site of the debate, is slated to serve as Secret Service headquarters.
The debate here was originally scheduled to be on domestic affairs, but the theme was lately changed to focus on foreign policy. Since I am currently teaching a course on international security and terrorism, the university asked me to become involved in some of the pre-debate festivities. I’m looking forward to it.
One thing I had to do was prepare a more-or-less non-partisan “viewers guide” to the debate for a local newspaper. They didn’t want my opinions, just a review of the topics that we might want to focus on during the debates. It was an interesting exercise; I even used it to teach class one day.
The international issue that jumps immediately to mind, of course, is the war in Iraq. Senator Obama has promised a quick withdrawal, and Senator McCain has pledged to stay as long as necessary for victory. Those broad parameters are clear, but at what point would McCain consider the situation adequately under control to justify a complete withdrawal? Would Obama agree to stay engaged if it became clear that withdrawal would lead to more bloodshed?
The ethnic and tribal conflict in the Darfur region of the Sudan is another hot spot. At what point would either candidate consider military action to end the violence? Are we only interested in intervening when there is a direct national interest, or do we step in for humanitarian reasons? Is oil a legitimate national interest?
Voters are also interested to know what role the United Nations will play in future international conflicts. Before military operations in Iraq, the United States tried to get the UN to take action. When it refused to go beyond sanctions, President Bush sent in American troops. Regardless of whether the candidates agree with that decision, what about the next time? Would they ever be willing to act without UN approval? Assuming so, how long do they wait for the UN to act or for sanctions to work? What position does each of them hold on the International Criminal Court?
The most serious threat to world peace currently seems to be coming from Russia. Its move into Georgia went largely unchallenged by the outside world. What would a McCain or Obama administration do in this situation? Perhaps more important is Russia’s threat to Poland. The United States has agreed to place defensive military systems in Poland. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has threatened an attack against Poland if the missiles are put in place. How would an Obama or McCain administration proceed? Should we pull the plug on the project, or go ahead and risk war? What happens if Poland is attacked?
It is also well within the realm of possibility that the next president will have to deal with an active military situation involving Israel and Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map. His nation is actively pursuing nuclear capabilities. Most observers believe that Israel will not allow that to happen. Israel might strike Iran in an effort to stop development, as it did with Iraq in 1981. How would Senators Obama and McCain respond if they were in the White House?
Finally, with America having just watched the Beijing Olympics, how do the senators stand on China? Many observers believe that China is a serious military threat. Nevertheless, we continue to give it “most favored nation” status, which facilitates trade. Would either candidate want to change the U.S. approach on that front? On a related point, do the recent economic upheavals make economic sanctions infeasible?
Despite the importance of these questions, the candidates are unlikely to bind themselves to a particular course of action. International relations are necessarily fluid, and a president must be free to adapt to events as they take place. As observers, we might not even want the candidates to commit to a particular policy. We do, however, want to hear their answers to questions like these. Those answers reveal the positions that are likely to shape the next administration. That is what we need to know, and that is why we will watch the debates.