Summer 2007 has been the season of Debate-o-rama 2008, with packs of presidential hopefuls strung across our TV screens, elbowing for face time, battling for likability. They’ve given up on being outstanding; they just want to stand out.
Night after night, our would-be presidents perform like pro wrestlers, every move scripted and choreographed, pounding the mats in feigned pain, outraged over an opponent’s comment. These events are to meaningful debate what pro wrestling is to real sport.
Here’s the new game within the game: Overstate but under-explain your position — then distort an opponent’s position. Especially on complex issues that should be thoughtfully debated as though our safety depends on getting it right.
There was such a moment recently at the AFL-CIO debate-o-rama at Chicago’s Soldier Field, when the Democratic candidates were asked what a president should do if solid intelligence shows the location of al Qaeda training camps in northern Pakistan — but Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf won’t move to oust them.
The question was asked because Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had raised the issue in a recent foreign-policy speech. He’d said that while removing troops from Iraq, where there was no military solution, he would send more troops into Afghanistan to fight the resurgent Taliban and urged Europeans to do the same. He also said al Qaeda and Taliban forces train in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, attack targets in Afghanistan, then return to their Pakistan sanctuaries.
“There must be no safe haven for terrorists who threaten America,” Mr. Obama said in his speech. He had said economic aid to Pakistan should be conditional on Mr. Musharraf’s moving to close down the Taliban and al Qaeda bases there.
“I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won’t act, we will.”
Back to the debate-o-rama. The Democratic pack treated the question not as an opportunity to thoughtfully debate a security crisis President Bush failed to confront, but as a chance to attack Mr. Obama’s lack of experience. They ducked the invitation to fully explain what they would do as president, and did a WWF-style tag-team thump-and-wail.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut: “I think it is highly irresponsible of people who are running for the presidency and seek that office to suggest we may be willing unilaterally to invade a nation here that we are trying to get to be more cooperative with us in Afghanistan and elsewhere.”
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York: “I think it is a very big mistake to telegraph that, and to destabilize the Musharraf regime, which is fighting for its life against the Islamist extremists who are in bed with al Qaeda and Taliban.”
It went on like that. Mr. Obama took them on: “I find it amusing that those who helped to authorize and engineer the biggest foreign-policy disaster in our generation are now criticizing me for making sure that we are on the right battlefield and not the wrong battlefield in the war against terrorism.”
Yet no one insisted each candidate tell us how he or she would handle the situation. A day later, a CNN anchor pressed Mr. Dodd for an excruciating two minutes but got nothing more than ducking and head-fakes. He still had no answer.
But former State Department official Dennis Ross, a keen expert who served in the administrations of both the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton, offered reasoned support for Mr. Obama’s position, writing for the New Republic online: “the threat of an al Qaeda attack originating from within Pakistan is certainly great, and it cannot be ignored or tolerated. Musharraf, the Pakistani military and the public need to know this.” Mr. Ross noted that private military-to-military talks should be the first step.
“But if private diplomacy and communication continue to prove ineffective, more public statements are also part of statecraft,” Mr. Ross added. “It is appropriate for us to call attention to the growth of al Qaeda and the Taliban as forces that are threatening to the well-being of Pakistan, its neighbors and to us — and ultimately to the fact that someone is going to have to deal with this threat.”
The spectacle of the presidential debate-o-rama has come down to this: It took a former diplomat, sequestered in a Washington think tank, to forge the one response that was downright presidential.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.