Where Was the Foreign Policy in This Debate?

Marc Serota/Getty Images
Marc Serota/Getty Images

(The Root) — My obsessive monitoring of social media shows that the third and final 2012 presidential debate was what you made of it, based on your pre-existing beliefs. By and large, Democrats and progressives thought President Obama nailed the topic of foreign policy, and Republicans and conservatives thought Mitt Romney nailed it. Here are some widely divergent comments following the debate:


Mia Love, by the way, is an African-American Republican politician of Haitian descent (as well as a 2012 honoree on The Root 100 list). She's currently mayor of Saratoga Springs, Utah, and running for a U.S. congressional seat in that state.

But let's just reset the table and go back to the big picture of what debates mean in our political system. I monitor social media feeds, particularly the divergences and interactions between progressives and conservatives. But I'm particularly interested in the way we frame politics. In our two-party system, the Electoral College effectively renders 30-plus of our U.S. states as "safe states" that will go either Democratic or Republican. They get much less attention from presidential campaigns and the media than the swing states, which generally number around a dozen.

So what does it mean that we have these debates, but only the swing voters in a dozen states are courted heavily for their votes? For example, I spoke at an ethics conference at the University of Central Oklahoma last week. Oklahoma is a solid "red state" in the presidential election. I live in New York, a solid "blue state." One panelist at the conference lives in Florida, a swing state, and said she gets up to 20 election flyers a day in her mailbox. I've gotten maybe one a week.


It's not that I want more political mail. But I am being put on notice that my vote is not really that important in the Electoral College calculations, as opposed to the ballot of someone from Florida or Ohio.

Keep that in mind as we turn to last night's debate. It was billed as a "foreign policy" debate, which to me means a debate on global issues. Instead, it was a national security debate, with almost all of the focus on Arab nations and the Middle East: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Israel. Latin America and Africa barely rated mentions. Asia was boiled down to our trade issues with China. (You can check the transcript yourself.)


When South Africa was mentioned, for example, it was in the context of apartheid, not its contemporary evolution. As an African-American woman born to a Zimbabwean father and a black American mother, I was disappointed but not surprised at the lack of relevant context about the role of Africa in the world.

Even the Eurozone, with all of its economic crises, was not addressed (except for Romney's warning that the business community worries that we're "headed down the road to Greece").


I was more shocked that in a country that regularly debates undocumented immigration from Latin America, that issue wasn't even raised. Some issues are too hot for both parties, I guess.

So how did the social media world react to the debate, with its omissions, as well as its fighting words? Since this was primarily a national security debate, the playing field focused on how we treat Israel as an ally, drone strikes and how much money we spend on the military. Romney said, "I will not cut our military budget by a trillion dollars, which is a combination of the budget cuts the president has, as well as the sequestration cuts. That, in my view, is making — is making our future less certain and less secure."


What followed was the most tweeted moment of the night. President Obama replied, "I think Gov. Romney maybe hasn't spent enough time looking at how our military works. You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed." In old-school hip-hop terms, that was the ultimate gas face.

Did this debate change any partisan minds? I doubt it. Though President Obama had the upper hand — many times he reminded voters and viewers that he was commander in chief — the social media feeds seemed to indicate that there were few game-changing moments.


On the other hand, as someone who both monitors global politics and has a family that stretches from the U.S. to Europe to Africa, I'm concerned about the way this debate was constructed. If America wants to remain a superpower, we need to engage with the entire world, not just nations with which we are at war or whose wars we are funding. That perspective was sorely lacking from both parties in this final presidential debate.

Farai Chideya is a distinguished writer in residence at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Institute for Journalism. She is the author of four books and blogs at Farai.com.

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