We had a debate club back in high school. Two teams would meet in the auditorium, and Mr. Garrity would tell us the topic, something 1970s-ish like "Resolved: Women Should Get Equal Pay for Equal Work" or "World Communism Will Be Defeated in Vietnam." Each side would then try, through persuasion and the marshalling of facts, to clinch the argument. There'd be judges and a winner.
Today's presidential debates are a long way from Mr. Garrity's club. It seems that the first rule of the debate club now is: no disagreeing on what matters most. In fact, the two candidates rarely interact with each other at all, typically ditching whatever the question might be for some rehashed set of campaign talking points, all with the complicity of the celebrity media moderators preening about democracy in action. Waiting for another quip about Big Bird is about all the content we can expect.
But the joke is on us. Sadly, the two candidates are stand-ins for Washington in general, a "war" capital whose denizens work and argue, sometimes fiercely, from within a remarkably limited range of options. It was DC on autopilot last week for domestic issues; the next two presidential debates are to be in part or fully on foreign policy challenges (of which there are so many). When it comes to foreign-that is, military-policy, the gap between Barack and Mitt is slim to the point of nonexistent on many issues, however much they may badger each other on the subject. That old saw about those who fail to understand history repeating its mistakes applies a little too easily here: the last eleven years have added up to one disaster after another abroad, and without a smidgen of new thinking (guaranteed not to put in an appearance at any of the debates to come), we doom ourselves to more of the same.
So in honor of old Mr. Garrity, here are five critical questions that should be explored (even if all of us know that they won't be) in the foreign policy-inclusive presidential debates scheduled for October 16 and 22-with a sixth bonus question thrown in for good measure.
1. Is there an end game for the "Global war on Terror"?
The current president, elected on the promise of change, altered very little when it came to George W. Bush's "Global War on Terror" (other than dropping the name). That jewel-in-the-crown of Bush-era offshore imprisonment, Guantánamo, still houses over 160 prisoners held without trial or hope or a plan for what to do with them. While the United States pulled its troops out of Iraq-mostly because our Iraqi "allies" flexed their muscles a bit and threw us out-the war in Afghanistan stumbles on. Drone strikes and other forms of conflict continue in the same places Bush tormented: Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan (and it's clear that northern Mali is heading our way).
A huge national security state has been codified in a host of new or expanded intelligence agencies under the Homeland Security umbrella, and Washington seems able to come up with nothing more than a whack-a-mole strategy for ridding itself of the scourge of terror, an endless succession of killings of "Al Qaeda Number 3" guys. Counterterrorism tsar John Brennan, Obama's drone-meister, has put it this way: "We're not going to rest until al-Qaeda the organization is destroyed and is eliminated from areas in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Africa and other areas."
So, candidates, the question is: What's the end game for all this? Even in the worst days of the cold war, when it seemed impossible to imagine, there was still a goal: the "end" of the Soviet Union. Are we really consigned to the "Global War on Terror," under whatever name or no name at all, as an infinite state of existence? Is it now as American as apple pie?
2. Do today's foreign policy challenges mean that it's time to retire the Constitution?
A domestic policy crossover question here. Prior to September 11, 2001, it was generally assumed that our amazing Constitution could be adapted to whatever challenges or problems arose. After all, that founding document expanded to end the slavery it had once supported, weathered trials and misuses as dumb as Prohibition and as grave as Red Scares, Palmer Raids and McCarthyism. The First Amendment grew to cover comic books, nude art works and a million electronic forms of expression never imagined in the eighteenth century. Starting on September 12, 2001, however, challenges, threats and risks abroad have been used to justify abandoning core beliefs enshrined in the Bill of Rights. That bill, we are told, can't accommodate terror threats to the Homeland. Absent the third rail of the Second Amendment and gun ownership (politicians touch it and die), nearly every other key amendment has since been trodden upon.
The First Amendment was sacrificed to silence whistleblowers and journalists. The Fourth and Fifth Amendments were ignored to spy on Americans at home and kill them with drones abroad. (September 30 was the first anniversary of the Obama administration's first acknowledged murder without due process of an American-and later his teenaged son-abroad. The United States has similarly killed two other Americans abroad via drone, albeit "by accident.")