Questions for the Foreign Affairs Debate

Oct. 22 (Bloomberg) -- It’s almost inevitable that the foreign policy debate between U.S. President Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney will feature much useless arguing about who said what, and when, about the fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Certainly, the killing of four Americans by terrorists possibly inspired by al-Qaeda was a terrible thing. Yet it represents one small defeat in a very long war. Debate moderator Bob Schieffer would serve American voters by limiting the Libya discussion and raising more important questions. Here are some I would like to see asked of the two candidates.

For Obama:

-- Your administration has denied reports that it plans to enter direct negotiations with Iran. Yet you have indicated a continued willingness to talk directly with the Iranian regime. What signs have you seen that suggest the Iranians may be willing to give up their nuclear program, and why should the U.S. enter negotiations, given the Iranian record of using such talks as cover for advancing their nuclear program?

-- The U.S. successfully contained the Soviet Union, which possessed a nuclear arsenal sufficient to kill all U.S. citizens. A nuclear Iran would not have that capacity. Why have you ruled out containment and threatened to use military force to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon?

-- Neither the Israeli prime minister nor the Palestinian president trusts you to be an effective broker in what is now a comatose Middle East peace process. How did this come to pass?

-- Why have you not visited Israel once in four years as president?

-- Why do you spend so little time building friendships with foreign leaders, especially leaders of allied countries?

-- You’ve promised to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2014. What would you do if U.S. intelligence informed you at the end of 2014 that the Taliban was poised to capture Kabul and once again assert control over most of Afghanistan?

-- Drone strikes you’ve ordered against targets in Pakistan have killed, by some estimates, several hundred innocent civilians, including many children. Is this a moral strategy to defeat terrorists?

-- You intervened to stop civilian massacres in Libya, where no U.S. national security interest was at stake. In Syria, far more people have been killed by their government, and U.S. interests are clearly at stake. America’s Muslim allies, including Turkey, are asking the U.S. to do more to bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Why have you stayed on the sidelines?

-- Arab liberals in Egypt and elsewhere believe the U.S. has abandoned the cause of spreading American-style freedom in the Middle East and is coddling the Muslim Brotherhood. Is Muslim Brotherhood ideology dangerous to the U.S.?

-- Who will maintain global security if the U.S. Navy and Army continue to shrink?

-- Was a common European currency a good idea?

For Romney:

-- In reaction to reports suggesting the U.S. and Iran may soon negotiate face-to-face over Iran’s nuclear program, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said, “I think the time for talking is over.” Do you agree?

-- You’ve said that on the first day of your presidency, you will label China a currency manipulator. What will be your response if, the next day, China announces that in retaliation it will no longer buy airplanes from Boeing and instead move all its business to Airbus?

-- You’ve promised that the first country you will visit as president is Israel. Why not Canada, Mexico or the U.K.? Is Israel America’s most important ally?

-- Can Israel survive as a Jewish democracy if it continues to rule the West Bank?

-- Unlike President Obama, you’ve said you will act to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons “capability,” rather than a nuclear weapon. Right now, Iran has the capacity to produce enriched uranium sufficient for several weapons, a credible ballistic missile program, and, most likely, designs for a nuclear warhead. Would you strike Iran today if you were president?

-- Your running mate Paul Ryan accused the Obama administration of allowing Russia to water-down sanctions against Iran. Do you believe it is possible to effectively sanction Iran without Russian support?

-- In Mexico, more than 60,000 people have died in drug-war-related violence over the past several years, yet drugs continue to flow to U.S. markets essentially uninterrupted. Would you continue to provide U.S. support to Mexico’s drug war?

-- You did not serve in the military. Did you encourage any of your five sons to serve in the military?

-- How do you plan to keep Pakistan from imploding?

-- You said recently, “America must have confidence in our cause, clarity in our purpose, and resolve in our might.” What is America’s purpose?

-- You and your running mate have no foreign policy experience. Name the three people you would listen to most on matters of foreign policy and national security if you become president.

And a bonus question, for both men:

-- The Duchy of Grand Fenwick has just invaded Freedonia, a stalwart U.S. ally. Do you seek United Nations Security Council permission before intervening, do you build a coalition of the willing to strike back, or do you call for an immediate cease-fire?

By rights, this should be the most important and substantive debate. Presidents don’t command the economy, but they do command the military. I’m as interested as the next guy in the arguments about the handling of Benghazi, but I’m more interested in understanding how these two men would guide the U.S. through what stands to be several very disorderly years.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.) Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View. Subscribe to receive a daily e-mail highlighting new View editorials, columns and op-ed articles.

Today’s highlights: the editors on making the most of Afghanistan’s minerals and on why New York should regulate, not research, fracking; William D. Cohan on why it’s too late to seek justice for the economic meltdown; Albert R. Hunt on the ground battle in Ohio; Michael Bordo on why this recovery is slower; Brad Miller on using stand-alone subsidiaries to break up banks.

To contact the writer of this article: Jeffrey Goldberg at

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.