Shadow Government

Foreign policy questions for the next debate

While we have no doubt that Bob Schieffer, the moderator of Monday night's foreign policy debate, will have plenty of material to choose from in formulating his questions for the candidates, we couldn't resist a chance to add our own suggestions. Following are some potential questions for the debate as submitted by the Shadow Government crew:

Peter Feaver:

1. Mr. President, is there any foreign policy challenge America faces that you would concede has gotten worse on your watch because of actions you have taken or not taken? In other words, is there any foreign policy problem that you would say can be blamed at least partly on you and not entirely on Republicans or President Bush?

2. Mr. President, what is the fairest criticism of your foreign policy record that you have heard from Governor Romney over the course of this campaign?

3. Mr. President, what is the most unfair criticism of Romney's foreign policy platform that you have heard your supporters levy over the course of this campaign?

4. Mr. President, why do you say that Romney is proposing defense expenditures that the military have not asked for when Romney is just proposing restoring funding to the levels you claimed were needed in your own budget a few years ago. That budget, which you asked for, reflected what the military asked for didn't it? And didn't you order the military to accept deeper cuts -- thus they can't now speak up and ask for those levels to be restored without being insubordinate, so isn't it misleading to claim that they are not asking for them when you ordered them not to?

5. For both: Both campaigns have featured senior retired military endorsements as a way of demonstrating your fitness to be commander-in-chief. Don't you worry that such endorsements drag the military into partisan politics, thus undermining public confidence in a non-partisan military institution?

Paul Bonicelli:

1. Mr. President, history tells us that prestige matters; that is, nation-states who are regarded for their power, whether military, economic or moral, are less often challenged by those who wish to upset the peace or change the international order that favors the interests of the great powers. Has your administration seen an increase in the prestige of the United States or a decrease, and why?

2. For both: Isn't a reform of our foreign aid system and institutions long overdue, and shouldn't reform have as its primary goal the promotion of direct and tangible US interests, such as more trade with more countries that govern themselves democratically? If this is truly the appropriate goal for international development funds, then why aren't all aid recipients required to practice sustained and real democracy?

Phil Levy:

1. For both: Do you believe that the economically endangered nations of Europe should adopt policies of austerity, as countries like Germany have argued, or that they should turn instead to more fiscal stimulus? If you prefer stimulus, is there any level of debt/GDP at which you get concerned about their ability to pay those debts? If you believe these countries should borrow more, from whom should they borrow? Should the United States be offering funds?

2. For both: There has been almost no progress on global trade talks since the summer of 2008. How would you assess the health of the World Trade Organization and the world trading system? Is this important for the United States? What would you do to strengthen the WTO, if anything?

3. For both: In 2009, in response to the stimulus bill, a top Chinese economic official said, ""We hate you guys. Once you start issuing $1 trillion-$2 trillion... we know the dollar is going to depreciate, so we hate you guys but there is nothing much we can do...." Brazil's finance minister, Guido Mantega, has accused the United States Federal Reserve of igniting a global currency war with its policies of quantitative easing. To what extent does the United States need to consider the international ramifications of its economic policies? Do you believe a strong dollar is in the U.S. interest? If so, what does that mean?

Kori Schake:

1. For both: What do you consider the top two national security threats to our country?

2. For both: How do you see increasing energy independence for the United States affecting our foreign policy?

3. President Obama, you have threatened to veto any changes to the 2010 Budget Control Act, yet both your Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff believe sequestration going into effect would be disastrous. How will you enact the Budget Control Act without damaging our national defense?

4. Governor Romney, you have committed to increase defense spending; where does the money come from to do that in year 1 of a Romney administration?

5. President Obama, Vice President Biden has said that your administration will withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanstan in 2014, whether or not the Afghan security forces are then capable of taking over the fight. Do you agree?

Paul Miller:

1. For both: Under what circumstances would you authorize military action against Iran's nuclear facilities? Will you intervene to stop the civil war in Syria? If so, what lessons have you learned from our recent experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that will shape how you undertake an intervention? How do you plan to accomplish a responsible transition to Afghan leadership for security there? What should be the mission of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after transition, and how many troops will be required to accomplish it? Or do you envision a complete withdrawal of all forces?

2. For both: Should the United States support the spread of democracy abroad? What is the role of democracy assistance in U.S. grand strategy, and how does it relate to our overall national interests? How will you respond to future peaceful uprisings like the Green Revolution or the Arab Spring?

3. For both: Some Americans are concerned that the government has accumulated too much power over the last decade in its effort to develop a robust counterterrorism capability. Others believe we need to keep those powers because the terrorist threat has not abated. Do you plan to sustain the government's new, post-9/11 war-time powers, reportedly including targeted killings and indefinite detentions, indefinitely? If not, will you publicly and explicitly commit to defining a clear end-state to the war against al Qaeda, the achievement of which will terminate the new powers?

Mary Habeck:

1. For both: What will be your response if Israel chooses to bomb Iran over its nuclear weapons program?

2. Mr. President, your administration has argued that al Qaeda is "on its heels." After Benghazi, do you still agree with this assessment?

3. For both: You have both agreed that the U.S. needs to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014. Are there any developments that would lead you to change your mind?

Jose Cardenas:

1. President Obama, in Venezuela, dictator Hugo Chávez presides over an anti-American regime that is directed by Castro, funded by China, armed by Russia, and exploited by Iran, Hezbollah, and a swarm of narcotraffickers. Yet, this past July, Mr. President, you told a Miami reporter that the Venezuelan dictator had no "serious national security impact" on the United States. In light of Mr. Chávez's troubling alliances, Mr. President, can you please assure us again or more fully explain why we do not need to be concerned about the situation in Venezuela?

2. Governor Romney, in the past two debates you held out increased U.S. trade with Latin America as part of the solution for improving U.S. economic prospects. Could you please elaborate on your vision for a more robust U.S. re-engagement with Latin America, a region that has been an afterthought for the current administration?

Will Inboden:

1. Mr. President, you have frequently voiced your criticism of your predecessor George W. Bush, yet many observers believe that your administration has actually adopted many policies of the Bush administration. Are there any policies or tools developed by the Bush administration that you are now thankful for?

2. For both: What past American president do you most admire on foreign policy, and why? What past American president do you least admire on foreign policy, and why?

3. For both: A recent Pew Forum study found that over 70 percent of the global population lives under high restrictions on religious belief and practice. To take just one region, the ongoing turbulence of the Arab Awakening and resurgence of Islamist groups shows that religious freedom remains a central factor in global politics. Do you believe that promoting international religious freedom should be a priority of American foreign policy, and if so, why and how?

4. Mr. President, the past year has seen Vladimir Putin return to Russia's presidency based on a campaign of anti-Americanism, Russia repeatedly block U.N. Security Council action on Syria, evict USAID operations from Russia, and end its participation in the Nunn-Lugar program for securing and dismantling WMD stockpiles. Has the "re-set" been a failure?

Daniel Twining:

1. Mr. President, under your leadership the United States is MIA in much of the world. Assad's repression in Syria has ignited a fire at the heart of the Middle East that is a humanitarian catastrophe, directly threatens the security of NATO ally Turkey, and risks rolling back or radicalizing the historic Arab Awakening - but we are nowhere to be found. In Libya, terrorists murdered an American ambassador for the first time in 30 years -- and no one has paid a price. The postwar European project risks falling apart, with enormous consequences for the transatlantic alliance -- yet rarely has the Atlantic seemed wider or Washington more disengaged from our oldest friends. In Iraq, we walked off the playing field before securing our enormous gains there; we are preparing to do the same thing in Afghanistan, irrespective of our strategic goals, and purely on the basis of our political calendar. Meanwhile, we are rhetorically "pivoting" to Asia but have devoted few if any actual resources to a strategic rebalance that could reshape the century ahead; in fact, your proposed defense cuts risk ceding the region to our competitors. In a world where economic influence matters as much as military power, we haven't had a trade agenda for four years -- beyond legacy initiatives launched by your predecessor. Yes, we understand that you prefer government-directed nation-building at home. But it's a dangerous world out there, and it is unraveling in the absence of our leadership. Mr. President, can America afford not to have a foreign policy?

Mike Green:

1. Governor Romney, Mr. President -- you have both said that Iran will not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Well, as we focus on Iran, North Korea has been expanding its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile inventory; has threatened to transfer its capability abroad and was only stopped in 2007 when Israel bombed a reactor that the North Koreans were helping Syria to build.

2. So Mr. President, why have you not been able to stop this...and Governor Romney, what would you do about it?

John Hannah:

1. For both: Do you believe in the doctrine known as American exceptionalism? If so, why? What are its implications for U.S. foreign policy?

2. For both: Would you be prepared to authorize that a suspected terrorist be waterboarded if you believed he might have information on an imminent plot to detonate a nuclear bomb in a major American city?

3. For both: Do you believe that it should be American policy to help accelerate the collapse of the current regime in Iran?

4. For both: Do you think it should be American policy to defend Taiwan militarily if it is the victim of an unprovoked Chinese attack?

5. For both: Do you believe that the ideology of Islamic extremism poses a major national security threat to the United States? If so, what would you do to combat it?

6. For both: Are you committed to developing and deploying a comprehensive missile defense system that would be designed to protect the United States from long-range attacks by Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean missiles?

7. Mr. President, can you explain why it is appropriate for the United States to conduct drone attacks against suspected terrorists -- including U.S. citizens -- which may result in the accidental death of non-terrorists, but it wasn't OK under the previous administration for the United States to subject suspected terrorists to harsh interrogations that carried no risk of death or injury to non-terrorists?

8. Mr. President, in a conversation focused on missile defense, a hot mic captured you privately telling Russian President Medvedev that he and Vladimir Putin should be patient until after the U.S. elections, at which point you would have more flexibility. What did you mean?

9. Governor Romney, could you explain what you meant when you called Russia our No. 1 geopolitical foe?

10. Governor Romney, given the dangerous world we live in, could you explain why you believe that someone like yourself with virtually no national security experience should be elected commander-in-chief?

Dan Blumenthal:

1. President Obama, three questions on the pivot:

  • Your top advisers keep stating that the "pivot" is not about China and say the same thing to China. Meanwhile allies in the region want to be reassured that the "pivot" is about balancing China's power. How are you going to resassure the Chinese that it is not about them while reassuring the allies that it is about China?
  • How will you "rebalance" to Asia in a credible way after you slashed defense budgets including programs that matter most in the Asia Pacific.
  • Is it really appropriate to talk about a "pivot" away from the Middle East given Al Qaeda's resurgence?

2. For both: Will you sell the 66 F-16c/ds that Taiwan asked for over 6 years ago?

3. Governor Romney, what steps will you take to show our allies that our policy of checking China's power is credible and sustainable?

Jamie Fly:

1. President Obama, why are you so confident that the U.S. intelligence community will know when Iran takes the final steps to develop a nuclear weapon? At that point, won't it be too late to prevent a nuclear Iran?

2. President Obama, do you believe that the United States and NATO are at all responsible for the current security situation in Libya and proliferation of weapons throughout the region given the lack of post-conflict assistance following the fall of Qaddafi?

3. President Obama, have you learned anything from the evolution of the crisis in Syria over the last eighteen months? What have been the achievements of U.S. policy toward Syria during this period?

4. Governor Romney, in recent months, you have noted that your initial priority as President will be on fixing the U.S. economy. How will you organize your administration to ensure that international crises, such as the recent attack on our consulate in Benghazi, will be handled effectively if your primary focus will be on domestic issues?

5. Governor Romney, you have expressed concern about President Obama's lack of leadership on Syria and called for arming the Syrian rebels. How would you ensure that U.S. lethal assistance does not fall into the wrong hands and how would you respond to growing calls from the opposition and our allies in the region for U.S. military intervention?

6. Governor Romney, will you continue President Obama's dual track approach of negotiations coupled with pressure on the Iranian regime or establish a new policy? By what metric would you judge whether negotiations have been successful?

UPDATE:

Tom Mahnken:

1. President Obama, in March you were overheard on an open microphone reassuring Russian President Medvedev that you would have "greater flexibility" in dealing with Russia on missile defense after the presidential election. Could you tell the American public now, before the election: flexibility to do what?

2. President Obama, your Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, has termed the cuts to U.S. defense mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 "catastrophic." Do you agree? If so, what are you willing to do to avert those cuts?

Win McNamee/Getty Images

National Security

Straining at gnats and swallowing camels

Independent fact checkers are in a tough business. Unlike their partisan counterparts, who merrily use double standards to excuse their own whoppers and slam their opponents for the slightest infractions, independent fact checkers are supposed to apply the same standard scrupulously, letting the chips fall where they may.

The biggest no-no for a fact checker who covets a reputation for independence and fairness is to strain at a gnat while swallowing a camel.

Which brings me to two posts by the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler, the dean of political fact checkers. Kessler takes his job seriously and, I believe, works hard to earn a reputation for fairness. He has earned the benefit of my doubt by virtue of his repeated efforts to patrol both sides and, on occasion, to engage with his critics.

Today, I am one of those critics, because I cannot see how he swallowed the camel of Obama's claim that Romney "wants to spend $2 trillion on additional military programs even though the military's not asking for them," whilst straining at the gnat of Romney's claim: "The size of our Navy is at levels not seen since 1916."

Kessler awards one Pinnochio to Obama's claim about what the military is seeking, which in his scale means "Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods." He awards Romney's claim about the Navy three Pinnochios, which means "Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions."

I do not see how, using the same standard, he arrives at these two codings.

For the World War I navy claim, Kessler concedes that the number of ships today approximates the size of the Navy before we entered WWI, but dings Romney for failing to note that the Navy reached an even slightly lower number in 2007 -- so, technically, "the trend line is up."

Yet Kessler understands that this sort of petty number parsing is not what varsity Fact Checking is about, and so spends most of his time dinging Romney for failing to credit the Navy with all of the qualitative improvements in technology since World War I. The most powerful ship today, an aircraft carrier, packs vastly more punch than the most powerful ship in 1916, a battleship, and so a 300 ship navy today is vastly more capable than a 300 ship navy in 1916.

Failing to contextualize the reference, Kessler concludes, makes it a "nonsense fact," even if it is technically mostly true on the surface. (So maybe it isn't a "significant factual error" then?)

One could devote a lengthy analysis to the context Kessler himself omits from his analysis. For instance, anti-ship technology has greatly improved since 1916 and so if the real underlying question is "How adequate is our naval modernization plans to confront the threats we are facing tomorrow?" then what matters is the net assessment of the ships we are planned to have tomorrow against the threats we are likely to face tomorrow. Comparing the capacity of today's ships with yesterday's ships, as Kessler does, is at least as much a "nonsense fact" as what he credits Romney with.

Moreover, as Joseph Stalin observed, it is not merely a matter of quality: "Quantity has a quality all its own." A qualitatively superior force can be defeated or at least thwarted by a quantitatively superior swarm. And, when the issue is regional coverage, even a qualitatively superior ship cannot be in two oceans at the same time.

Bottom line: Romney's underlying claim that Obama's defense budget does not adequately address the threats confronting the United States over the lifetime of the navy Obama has programmed is at least arguable. The World War I reference is suggestively supportive -- though not dispositive -- and probably merits at worst 1 Pinnochio.

Don't take my word for it. Simply apply the standards of reasoning Kessler applies to Obama's far more egregious claim about the military not asking for the programs Romney promises to include in his defense budget.

Kessler begins this fact-checking exercise with another careful parsing of the numbers and finds that Obama is engaging in a bit of hyperbole by worst-casing it and not crediting Romney for all of the caveats he has included -- but that is not the interesting (to me) part of the assignment since both sides agree that Romney is promising to spend more on defense than Obama is promising to spend.

What gives Obama's quote punch is not the precise dollar estimate but rather the claim that the military has not asked for the programs that Romney's extra spending would allow. This claim, if true, would make Romney's proposed spending frivolous and thus, in a time of fiscal constraint, beyond reckless.

Kessler, to his credit, partially investigates this part and finds several instances of Obama's own national security team asking for roughly the amount of spending Romney's proposals would entail. Yet Kessler does not consider this to be proof that Obama is dissembling because he also notes that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff testified on behalf of the president's budget in January 2012.

Kessler acknowledges that Dempsey may not have wanted Obama's downscaled budget but since he testified on its behalf, Kessler is not going to ding Obama about whether the military asked for it. Kessler gives Obama the barest slap on the wrist because his "phrasing is certainly carefully parsed."

The facticity of Obama's claim does not turn on the difference between want and ask, but rather on when you credit the military with asking.

What Kessler fails to adequately credit, but which I emphasized in my own analysis (which concluded there may not be "enough Pinocchios in Tuscany to describe how misleading" the Administration's position is), is that by the time of Dempsey's January 2012 testimony, the military had already been ordered to accept these cuts.

Obama decided on a cut to the defense topline, then ordered the defense department to come up with a strategy that fit under that topline, and then ordered the department to come up with a budget that fit that tailored strategy that fit that arbitrary topline. In order to reach that budget goal, the department had to cut many programs that just the year before they had asked for and defended as necessary for national security.

Its worse than that: Since the development of any given year's budget takes so long and Obama's cuts came relatively late in the game, the department had to cut things that they were preparing to ask for in that very budget year cycle. Kessler could have done some reporting to compare what the military had been asking for in the development of that fiscal year's defense budget with what the president permitted.

Obama wants to pick the latest possible time for assessing what the military is asking for: when the military testifies on behalf of the president's budget. But by that time, the military has been ordered to accept that budget. Their choice at that point is to accept or resign in protest. If they testify on behalf of it, what you can conclude is that they think they can live with this budget and are not willing to resign in protest over it. If you want to know what they asked for, look at the budget requests they submitted in the development of the budget process, before they were told what they would have to settle for. 

Now it is true that the military services always ask for more than they get, so it hardly ends the debate over whether the spending is needed simply to note that at some point the military asked for that program. But, at the same time, the fact that they asked for it rather gives the lie to the claim that they didn't ask for it.

In my piece, I emphasized the damage to civil-military relations that the Obama administration was doing in peddling this partisan line. Kessler's in a different business, so I don't blame him for ignoring the damage to civil-military relations.

But he is in the fact-checking business, and he does claim to want to avoid a double-standard.

So I asked him for his explanation, and he kindly gave me his answer:

"The Pinocchio ratings are the toughest part of my job, and I strive to be consistent in how I apply them. I evaluate statements on a case by case basis, and politicians have become quite clever at figuring out ways to avoid getting trapped by a fact checker. That's why Obama uses the word "ask" in his statement; it was clearly a carefully chosen word.

Readers of the column on the defense budget will note that I essentially took a pass on rating whether Obama was correct in the distinction between "ask" and "want," leaving the judgment up to the readers -- or defense analysts. So the One Pinocchio rating was essentially aimed at the claim of a $2 trillion increase in defense budget. I think it is fair to say I was dubious about the claim that the military did not want more money, and you certainly raise some good points about how they were ordered to shift course in the middle of the process."

I think he makes a good point for why he gave Obama some wiggle room, but, as Kessler himself might say, I leave it to the reader to determine whether he gave Romney the benefit of the same wiggle room. I am still not persuaded he did, but maybe I am the one straining at the gnat?

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/GettyImages