Foreign policy didn't come up much in tonight's presidential debate; but when it did, Sen. John McCain—whose strengths lie in this realm—seemed surprisingly unsteady while Sen. Barack Obama came off as more sure-footed than he did in the first contest.
Fred Kaplan is the author of The Insurgents and the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Several times, McCain opened himself up to easy counterpunches. At least once, he was vague to a baffling degree. And he contradicted himself on a key issue (though Obama didn't say so).
McCain left the biggest opening when he touted his judgment and experience in answer to a question about when to use military force, capping his response by noting, as he did several times two weeks ago, that Obama doesn't understand these issues.
This allowed Obama to reply that, yes, he didn't understand a lot of things—for instance, he didn't understand why George W. Bush invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with Sept. 11, yet let Osama Bin Laden thrive in the mountains of Pakistan. McCain, he noted, said that the invasion would be swift and we'd be welcome as liberators—judgments that were wrong and fatal.
The other opening for Obama came when McCain chided the Democrat for saying that he'd "attack Pakistan." McCain quoted Teddy Roosevelt's chestnut "Talk softly, carry a big stick," yet here was Obama, doing the exact opposite.
Obama had two replies. First, he wasn't calling for an invasion of Pakistan—just for "taking out" Osama Bin Laden if we had him in our sights and the Pakistanis couldn't or wouldn't do it. Then he won the round decisively by remarking, "This is the guy who said 'Bomb, bomb Iran,' " who called for "the annihilation of North Korea," and who, after we ousted the Taliban from Kabul, said, "Next up, Baghdad." That's not talking softly. (McCain's response, that he was just joking with an old veteran friend, was, first, not true—he said it in a public forum—and, second, quite lame.)
McCain's contradiction came early in the debate, when he said that he knew how to cut defense spending, citing his savings of $6.8 billion in an aircraft contract—but then, not one minute later, he advocated a freeze in all federal spending except for defense and veterans. If he knows how to squeeze defense contracts, it's unclear why he would exempt the Defense Department, which spends more than $500 billion a year on items that, by the Pentagon's own accounting, have nothing to do with the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or the wider war on terror.
Finally, McCain's baffling statement: "I'll get Osama Bin Laden, my friends. I know how to get him. I know how to do it." This is reminiscent of Richard Nixon's secret plan to win the war in Vietnam—except that McCain belongs to the same party as the current president. If McCain knows how to do this, shouldn't he have told George W. Bush?
Otherwise, the foreign-policy segment of the debate was a rehash of the previous debate. There were the same disagreements over the merits of talking with Iran "without precondition" and the wisdom of a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. There were the same agreements, more or less, over wagging a finger at the Russians over their aggression against Georgia.
The one new question—under what criteria each of them would go to war for strictly humanitarian reasons—went unanswered by both. (Obama said allies were important in such circumstances—true but an evasion. McCain said, "I know these situations. I've been in there all my life"—his customary mantra when he doesn't have an answer to a question about national-security matters.)
Overall: not a deeply inspiring debate, but a clear victory for Obama.