Debating the Debate

By Dan Dupont / September 24, 2008 at 5:00 AM

With news breaking all over the place about Sen. McCain's attempt to call off the debate Friday night while he and others work on the economy, we turn to Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haas for a preview of what to expect when and if McCain and Obama do get together and talk national security:

Consider the inbox of the 44th president of the United States.He will face ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan; a Pakistani government that is unable or unwilling to take on the terrorists who have set up shop in the country's western reaches; and an Iran apparently intent on developing nuclear weapons. Beyond the greater Middle East, there are the challenges of a more assertive Russia, a rising China, a warming planet and a cooling world economy.

Making matters worse is that the new president will have to deal with these and other threats with his hands partially tied. The U.S. military is stretched. The American economy faces a financial-market meltdown. The country is politically divided at home and unpopular abroad. Only Washington, Lincoln and FDR faced comparable international challenges and domestic constraints upon taking office.

What makes the outcome of this election even more significant is that the occupant of the Oval Office enjoys tremendous latitude in the conduct of foreign policy. Congress is far more of a factor in domestic affairs. Anyone doubting this need only remind himself of the past eight years. It is thus fitting and fortunate that the first of the three presidential debates focuses on foreign policy and national security. It is appalling that we have thus far paid more attention to lipstick and pigs than to loose nukes in Pakistan (although the Wall Street crisis has at least refocused minds a bit).