If last night’s presidential debate provided anything, it’s that the problems of the entire world are difficult to distill into a 90-minute forum that allows time for zingers, haymakers, and some sneaky digressions (debate theme be damned!) back into domestic policy. This seems to be the way the candidates want it and while the snap polls and the snap judgments of a majority of pundits have awarded President Obama the “win,” both candidates played it relatively safe.
In the social media ecosystem, truncated outrage was easy to find. Chief among the gripes: the number of countries (and even regions) whose issues were not substantively discussed or even invoked by the two men vying to lead the world. Foreign Policy kept a tally of which countries garnered mention and how many times. Europe and its countries, which face a not unreal danger of an economic collapse that would destabilize the world, were uttered five times. Mali, which is seeing a resurgent al-Qaeda presence, surprisingly made it four times.
The big winner (if you can call ’em that) was Iran, which would be pleased to know its mention was made 47 times. China was next at 35, although the discussion mainly centered around currency manipulation and trade, not the country’s defense of tyrants. Pakistan came in sixth.
Jeffrey Goldberg pushed back on the Twitter machine:
The greatest threat to the world is not a nuclear Iran. It is an imploding, loose-nuke Pakistan.
Syria placed fifth, but mostly was used as a prop for the candidates to beat each other up with. Tablet contributor Hanin Ghaddar declared Bashar Assad winner of the debate:
Power comes with responsibility, and the Syrians expected a more responsible stance from what should be the most powerful state in the world. On both Twitter and Facebook, Syrians expressed disappointment with both candidates. They saw America’s power implemented in Libya and wanted the same treatment. However, it seems both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama have washed their hands of the Syrian people and decided to stay in the viewing seat.
And so, the main driver of the conversation (when it stayed on foreign policy) was Iran and Israel, despite the fact that the candidates mostly agreed on the approach of robust sanctions coupled with the threat of military action. Everything was about tone, especially for a debate taking place in Boca Raton. Florida’s Jewish population, which is 3% of the state, could prove to be crucial (yet again) in determining who gets elected. It didn’t go unnoticed.
Josh Barro from Bloomberg wryly tweeted:
In fairness, Israel is a swing state with 14 electoral votes.
There was one meaningful exchange that summed up the attitudes of both candidates about Israel. Governor Romney highlighted what he (and others) see as President Obama’s subterranean dislike for Israel, exemplified by his failure to visit the country as a sitting president. It was an effective push in the rhetorical context, but a look about President Obama’s actual deeds paints a clearer picture. Nevertheless, Romney looked stronger and more credible than before as he presented that narrative.
In his response, President Obama sought to portray Governor Romney as an opportunist, who arrived in Israel with donors, while trumpeting that, when he had visited as a candidate, President Obama had toured Yad Vashem and visited the besieged town of Sderot, which inspired him to fund the Iron Dome program to keep Israelis safe from rocket fire. It was a masterful defense.
Those with their biases took what they needed from the debate. But for all the talk about Israel and Iran, neither candidate endorsed the “red line” put out by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in cartoon form at the United Nations this September. Neither wanted to seem eager to go to war.
But, on the other hand, almost no talk took place about the difficult negotiated settlement with the Palestinians that must be had to ensure Israel’s survival once the Iranian threat is neutralized. In that way, neither candidate wanted to seem eager to go to peace.