Unanswered questions about foreign policy.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 13 2004 1:07 AM

Unanswered Questions

The third debate should be about foreign policy, too.

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ.—There are lots of questions going into the third and final presidential debate of the 2004 campaign: Will President Bush find his inside voice? After two debate victories, will the overconfident, coasting "Bad Kerry" return? Will Bush wire himself with an earpiece so he can listen to the baseball playoffs? What bad Red Sox joke will Kerry make? Most important, wouldn't the nation be better off if this were another foreign-policy debate?

If you've paid any attention at all to the presidential campaign for the past seven months, you know the basic differences between Bush and Kerry on taxes, health care, education, abortion, same-sex marriage, Social Security, outsourcing, or whatever your favorite domestic issue is. There are no unanswered questions for the two men that I can think of. Instead, Wednesday night's debate will be a shallow exercise in political point-scoring, with each candidate trying to highlight the embarrassing parts of his opponent's record.

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Normally, I'd think such an event would be both great fun and worthwhile. But on foreign policy, the central issue of this election, there's still a great deal of confusion as to where each candidate stands, despite a presidential debate and a half, and a vice presidential debate, on the subject. Do you know, for example, what John Kerry's position is on how the nation should deal with state sponsors of terrorism? Does he agree with Bush that those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves? What's his opinion of the Bush Doctrine? Would he amend it? If so, how? Does he think the nation should adhere to a foreign-policy doctrine, or should we just take an ad hoc approach to terrorism and other global problems?

None of those questions were addressed in the first three debates. The campaign's focus on unilateralism vs. internationalism has obscured the more fundamental foreign-policy difference between Bush and Kerry: their views on the role of states, and state sponsors, in the war on terror. Matt Bai's New York Times Magazine piece on John Kerry's view of the war on terror elucidates this difference between the two men more clearly than any article yet written on Kerry's foreign policy, including manful attempts by the Atlantic and TheNew Yorker.

Bush's war on terror assumes that states are the main actors in international affairs. After 9/11, Bush expressed skepticism that a mere "network" could have pulled off such a feat. Bush, Bai writes, does not believe that terrorists "can ultimately survive and operate independently of states." The Bush National Security Strategy calls terrorists "clients" of rogue states. The Bush war on terror is remarkably state-centric. After the fall of Afghanistan, the administration immediately began looking for the next state to topple.

Kerry focuses on nonstate actors, international networks that operate outside of state control. "Kerry's view, on the other hand, suggests that it is the very premise of civilized states ... that is under attack," Bai writes. Kerry's internationalism stems from his view of the war on terror, rather than vice versa: "And no one state, acting alone, can possibly have much impact on the threat, because terrorists will always be able to move around, shelter their money and connect in cyberspace; there are no capitals for a superpower like the United States to bomb, no ambassadors to recall, no economies to sanction."

The clear implication of Bai's article is not, as the Bush campaign would have it, that Kerry wants only to reduce terrorism to a "nuisance" while Bush wants to eliminate it. It's that Bush would seek to topple more regimes in his second term, while Kerry wouldn't. Perhaps everyone already knew that. But don't you want to know more about it? I've already proposed several questions for Kerry. Here are some for Bush: Mr. President, you say John Kerry has a "fundamental misunderstanding" of the war on terror when he says it is only a war against al-Qaida. Does this mean that you are likely to try to change other regimes by force in the Middle East in your second term—those that harbor, say, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad? You say those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves. What countries in the world are harboring terrorists, and how do you plan to punish them for their guilt? When you mock Sen. Kerry for saying the war on terror is in large part a "law enforcement operation," are you saying that breaking up terrorist cells is insufficient for victory in the war? What is sufficient for victory? Other than Iraq and Afghanistan, where do you see the next battleground in the war on terror?

If you want to know about the candidates' health-care plans, you can read about them on their Web sites and in newspaper articles. We're a nation at war. Don't you wish the two candidates had to answer some more questions about who exactly we're at war with?

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.