OXFORD, Miss. - It was not until 32 minutes into Friday night’s debate at the University of Mississippi — a debate meant to focus on foreign policy — that either Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain or his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, so much as mentioned a foreign policy issue.
It came when Obama pledged to bring the Iraq war to a close.
For most of the opening segment of the face-off, the candidates sparred — without a decisive result — over the proposed $700 billion bailout of financial firms. Neither really would say for certain that they would support a final version of that plan since it is still being negotiated.
And neither of them was able to answer with much specificity moderator Jim Lehrer’s inquiries about what particular spending items they would cut to help free up some money to pay for the $700 billion rescue plan.
But Obama spokesman Dan Pfeiffer, on his way to the post-debate spin room, insisted that Obama "got very specific about his plans to cut spending. And it begins with beginning to draw down our presence in Iraq, where we’re spending $10 billion a month while Iraq has a surplus of nearly $80 billion.”
Obama, he said, would close tax loopholes and restore the higher top income tax rates for upper-income Americans that were in effect prior to 2001.
“There are some of his (spending) priorities he may have to delay — but we’ll have to look at that when he’s president,” Pfeiffer said.
“If we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, that’s $10 billion a month we don’t have to deal with our problems here at home,” added Obama strategist David Axelrod.
Even as the two candidates sparred, the scope of American foreign policy was being narrowed by the limited financial means the United States will have after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
An impaired balance sheet
The banking and credit chaos of the last three weeks has made it clear the next president will be in charge of a federal government with a much-impaired balance sheet.
The country will be even more dependent on Chinese and Japanese investors now than it was before.
Throughout much of his career, McCain has favored a robust, interventionist foreign policy.
On Friday Obama, although promising that he will figure out a way to reduce the U.S. military involvement in Iraq, gave a strong and detailed argument in favor of a more intensive U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan. He is also for greater non-military engagement in Pakistan.
“We need more troops,” he said, citing the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, as his authority. He specified two to three additional brigades, and, he said, they need to be dispatched “as quickly as possible.”
Both Obama and McCain have called for more troops to join the more than 30,000 U.S. personnel already there.
But McCain may have missed an opportunity to challenge Obama: Why does he favor a timeline for exit from Iraq, but not from Afghanistan?
Withdrawal from Afghanistan?
Obama “has not set a timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan,” his foreign policy adviser, Susan Rice, said in July.
McCain was patronizing throughout the debate in describing Obama’s scant foreign affairs experience, at one point accusing him of “a little bit of naïveté” in his comments on the Russian attack on Georgia.
"I don't honestly believe" Obama, who is 25 years his junior, has the foreign policy expertise to handle the job of president, McCain said.
In the post-debate spin room, McCain adviser Charlie Black continued the portrayal of Obama as not ready to be running American foreign policy.
“Sen. McCain believes that Sen. Obama is a patriotic American and a good man, but he does not have either the experience or judgment in foreign policy or national security, and John McCain sincerely believes he doesn’t understand some of these complex issues,” Black said.
If Obama truly understood “the power and prestige of the American president sitting down with another head of state, and what credibility that gives to a foreign leader,” then he wouldn’t advocate meeting with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said Black.
“Obama takes the argument — reserve the right to meet with bad guys — to an absurd conclusion," he said.
Obama had given his answer in the debate: “Ahmadinejad is not the most powerful person in Iran. So he may not be the right person to talk to. But I reserve the right as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe.”
Obama's rejoinder on the experience issue was to cite McCain's mistaken forecasts about the Iraq war: "You said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong."
The cost of a robust foreign policy
The robust approach to foreign policy — whether in Georgia or Afghanistan — entails a military establishment that costs more than $570 billion a year, about one-fifth of total federal outlays.
Will deeper involvement in Afghanistan and elsewhere require higher taxes on Americans and more borrowing from foreigners? That question went mostly unaddressed in the debate.
But, as McCain said in one fleeting reference to America’s limited resources, “We owe China $500 billion.”
Perhaps the most eye-opening comment on what one of these two men will face was made earlier this week by a former adviser to the Chinese central bank named Yu Yongding.
Chinese banks and investors own $519 billion, or about 20 percent, of the $2.67 trillion in U.S. Treasury securities held by foreign nations.
With the U.S. Treasury about to add $700 billion more to its burdens, the Chinese are having doubts about their investment in Treasury IOUs.
"China is very worried about the safety of its assets,'' Yu told Bloomberg News. "If you want China to keep calm, you must ensure China that its assets are safe.''
The U.S. financial crisis forced Chinese leaders to confront the question: Why is their nation piling up these IOUs if they may default?
A shift by Pacific Rim investors out of Treasury bonds and the resulting decline in the value of the dollar would make the next president’s foreign policy challenges even greater.
That dilemma was not confronted Friday night.