Journalists Analyze Final Presidential Debate at GW

Foreign policy correspondents from Washington Post, NBC News among those offering predictions and commentary at special debate-watching party.

SMPA Fellow Doug Wilson, Washington Post's Anne Gearan, NBC's Richard Engel, Foreign Policy's Susan Glasser and WIRED's Noah Shachtman analyzed the last presidential debate in JMA.
October 23, 2012

Four of the nation’s top journalists offered their thoughts about Monday night’s presidential debate on foreign policy at a debate preview and viewing party in Jack Morton Auditorium.

“Decision 2012, Obama v. Romney: The Foreign Policy Debate” featured pre-and post-debate commentary from Richard Engel, chief foreign correspondent for NBC News; Anne Gearan, Washington Post national security correspondent; Susan Glasser, editor of Foreign Policy; and Noah Shachtman, WIRED contributing editor.

The event, hosted by Doug Wilson, School of Media and Public Affairs distinguished fellow and former senior Pentagon spokesman and assistant secretary of defense for public affairs, was sponsored by George Washington’s School of Media and Public Affairs and Elliott School of International Affairs. SMPA Director Frank Sesno introduced the panelists.

Before the debate, the journalists discussed the United States’ foreign policy in some of the most dangerous regions around the world and how Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney could potentially challenge President Barack Obama on these issues during the debate.

Mr. Engel, who has covered Middle East conflicts on the ground, called Syria one of the most pressing foreign policy issues, citing the Syrian conflict’s growing impact on Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Syria is an open wound, a hole in the middle of the Middle East that has been created and largely ignored, and that problem is expanding,” he said.

There is also a great risk of Afghanistan falling into civil war when U.S. troops are fully removed, said Mr. Engel, which will raise “enormous questions” about what the United States actually accomplished in the region.

Ms. Gearan noted the lack of active policy or a specific commitment of U.S. resources to Syria. “There’s no actual active policy to do something,” she said. “There’s a larger goal, which is [President Bashar al-Assad] must go, but there’s no stepping stone for how you get Assad to go, and there’s no specific commitment of U.S. resources or policy to make that happen.”

Ms. Glasser said the candidates have been reluctant to provide specifics on U.S. foreign policy in this election, adding that Romney and Obama will most likely stick to more rhetorical comments about Syria for the duration of the campaign.

Mr. Engel said extensive U.S. media coverage of Benghazi may not be indicative of the actual foreign policy issues confronting the next president.

“If you look at the world broadly and look at the foreign policy of the United States, I don’t think the amount of coverage that particular incident has gotten is representative of what are the real issues and challenges the next president—no matter who wins—is going to face.”

Ms. Gearan stressed that America does not have the money or time to be involved in as many international crises as in years past.

"The experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have not only drained the coffers but the will to have sort of an adventurous overseas policy…people are just done,” she said.

Mr. Schactman said the idea that the nation lacks the “stomach for adventure” does not explain why the United States still has its hands in a lot of overseas conflicts.

“We’re involved in Libya, we’re involved in Yemen, we’re involved in Somalia, we’re about to start sending drones to Mali—so the crazy part is we’ve lost our stomachs for these wars and overseas adventures, yet we’re doing more of them, and there seems to be no criticism of that,” he said.

After a viewing of the debate, Mr. Sesno and Mr. Wilson joined Mr. Engel and Ms. Gearan to briefly analyze Obama’s and Romney’s performances and take questions from the audience.

Mr. Engel said he thought the discussion on military spending was “the highlight” of the debate, adding that Obama’s quip that the U.S. military has “fewer horses and bayonets” than in 1917—a counter to Romney’s comment about the Navy needing more ships— was one of the “big lines” of the night.

Ms. Gearan said the candidates’ discussions about Syria were “actual airings” of some of the real dilemmas the nation faces, including arming rebels and the risks of increasing U.S. military involvement in the region. She also expressed surprise at Obama’s blunt remarks about not asking Pakistan’s permission to raid Osama bin Laden’s compound.

“What Obama said about hunt of Osama bin Laden was fascinating,” she said. “That’s a touchy thing, it goes right to the heart of a lot of criticisms of the United States in that part of the world, and he zeroed right in on it.”

Mr. Sesno said he would give the evening “narrowly” to Obama because he was specific and effectively harped on Romney’s inconsistencies, but noted that Romney managed to hold his own.

“Romney didn’t tank. He did what he needed to do for most of the people who were looking at him closely,” said Mr. Sesno. “Probably for even some of the very few fence sitters out there, he was credible enough that you felt if he had the job, it was not a scary thing.”

There is “an awful lot” that needs to be said about American leadership in the world that “went unsaid on the screen,” said Mr. Wilson. He noted that major issues like the United States’ relationship with China are just some of the foreign policy challenges that candidates avoid addressing until they are sitting in the White House.

“I think there are issues that are fundamental to American foreign policy now and in the future that you don’t see discussed in the kind of depth and breadth in the political campaign that later any president is going to have to address,” he said.

Mr. Wilson ended the event by urging the audience to hit the polls on Nov. 6.

“We’ve got two more weeks,” he said. “I hope, in addition to showing up here, you exercise your right to vote.”