Center for Strategic Communication

by Steven R. Corman

You would think that any presidential debate on foreign policy would have to spend a lot of time talking about how American policy is perceived and how its perception influences our ability to project power, pursue our strategies, and achieve our goals.

You would be wrong.

In the entire 90 minute presidential debate last night, that issue only came up once near the end of the debate when, in response to a “lead question” from Jim Lehrer aboutt he possibility of another 9/11 style attack, Barack Obama said:

Well, first of all, I think that we are safer in some ways. Obviously, we’ve poured billions of dollars into airport security. We have done some work in terms of securing potential targets, but we still have a long way to go.

We’ve got to make sure that we’re hardening our chemical sites. We haven’t done enough in terms of transit; we haven’t done enough in terms of ports.

And the biggest threat that we face right now is not a nuclear missile coming over the skies. It’s in a suitcase.

This is why the issue of nuclear proliferation is so important. It is the — the biggest threat to the United States is a terrorist getting their hands on nuclear weapons.

And we — we are spending billions of dollars on missile defense. And I actually believe that we need missile defense, because of Iran and North Korea and the potential for them to obtain or to launch nuclear weapons, but I also believe that, when we are only spending a few hundred million dollars on nuclear proliferation, then we’re making a mistake.

The other thing that we have to focus on, though, is al Qaeda. They are now operating in 60 countries. We can’t simply be focused on Iraq. We have to go to the root cause, and that is in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That’s going to be critical. We are going to need more cooperation with our allies.

And one last point I want to make. It is important for us to understand that the way we are perceived in the world is going to make a difference, in terms of our capacity to get cooperation and root out terrorism.

And one of the things that I intend to do as president is to restore America’s standing in the world. We are less respected now than we were eight years ago or even four years ago.

And this is the greatest country on Earth. But because of some of the mistakes that have been made — and I give Senator McCain great credit on the torture issue, for having identified that as something that undermines our long-term security — because of those things, we, I think, are going to have a lot of work to do in the next administration to restore that sense that America is that shining beacon on a hill.

Obama gave John McCain an opening to address the issue and reproduce the “I’m a maverick” talking point.  What did he say?

LEHRER: Do you agree there’s much to be done in a new administration to restore…

MCCAIN: But in the case of missile defense, Senator Obama said it had to be, quote, “proven.” That wasn’t proven when Ronald Reagan said we would do SDI, which is missile defense. And it was major — a major factor in bringing about the end of the Cold War.

We seem to come full circle again. Senator Obama still doesn’t quite understand — or doesn’t get it — that if we fail in Iraq, it encourages al Qaeda. They would establish a base in Iraq.

Whuh?  Obama said he thinks we need missile defense,  not that it has to be “proven.”  And how did we get to the subject of Iraq?

Ironically, missile defense is one of the policies that is currently causing public diplomacy problems (and regular diplomacy problems for that matter) with the Russians.  For McCain to invoke it in response to a question about improving U.S. image is more than a little worrisome.

For that matter, it’s kind of odd for Obama to say he supports the policy, then in the same breath talk about the need to work on the negative perceptions of our policies.  Aren’t the two related, Senator?

So there you have it.  Of a debate on foreign policy comprising 16,156 words, public diplomacy commanded 155 (0.96%) of them and no actual debate.  U.S. image is a much bigger issue in foreign policy than that.

A good illustration is the missile defense issue.  The chief criticism of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars plan (other than it couldn’t withstand countermeasures) was that it would touch off a new arms race. Yesterday, just as both our presidential candidates were extolling the virtues of such systems, Russsian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he was embarking on a new nuclear development program to include “a system of aerospace defence.”  Why?  Because Russia reads the defense system to be installed in eastern Europe as being part of a U.S. plan to build a “ring of steel” around it.