The final presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney took place on Monday. The subject was foreign policy. Serious business, you’d think, given the state of the world and America’s messy place in it.
Although this third match-up could have had a huge impact on the outcome of the election, the size of the television audience slipped; from a high of 67.2 million viewers in the first go-around to a more modest turn-out of 59.2 million, according to CBS News.
Not only did it excite less interest, but the pre-debate analysis spun into unusual territory: drinking games (as in take a drink whenever Candidate X mentions Y). The patter started, of course, with college humor; then reasonably harmless jokes about the economy; and moved to the politics of the Middle East – all covered with playful efficiency by the folks at NPR.
What’s our point? Had you watched the debate and played your drinking game tied to mentions of Cuba or Latin America by the candidates, you would have ended the evening close to stone cold sober.
Eric Farnsworth, writing for the Americas Quarterly, heard the debate as we did and branded it for the failure it was:
This was largely the fault of the moderator, who began promisingly enough with reference to the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis and then, rather than following up with questions designed to elicit new and revealing answers, immediately inquired about Libya…
After an introduction on Cuba, why not ask a logical first question such as “What do you do immediately upon hearing that Fidel Castro has died?” That would reveal the instincts of the commander-in-chief in unpredictable crisis management—addressing historic changes 90 miles from the United States.
It’s not like that wasn’t on people’s minds. We wrote about the ghouls coming out in force over former President Castro’s health this week, calling our Cold War preoccupation with his mortality the “vestigial tail that our body politic refuses to shake.”
But after a glancing blow by Gov. Romney about Obama’s expiring 2008 promise to talk to leaders like Raúl Castro, they returned to the fog of Middle East war and the back and forth over China and military spending, etc.
Why not spend time discussing the region closest to us? Again, Farnsworth:
The list of questions is limitless, and a line has to be drawn somewhere. But why is it that the line that is drawn by debate moderators—wherever it is—invariably excludes the geographic neighborhood in which we ourselves live? Perhaps if the candidates were asked about Latin America from time to time, the message would be sent that the region matters as a foreign policy issue. Because, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not, it does.
What our leaders say and do about Cuba and the Caribbean, Central and South America, does matter enormously; sometimes for good and often for ill. We don’t need, for example, a repetition of Woodrow Wilson’s approach, who famously said “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”
What we do need is a renewed commitment and reengagement with the region that finally gets it right. Ted Piccone, deputy director of foreign policy at Brookings, wrote how it could all begin with Cuba:
And then there is Cuba, which happened to get the moderator’s opening line about the 50th anniversary of the nuclear missile crisis. How fitting, since U.S. policy remains stuck in a Cold War time warp. To break that logjam, the next president will need to raise his sights beyond electoral politics and calculate that direct engagement with an evolving Cuba will protect America’s national interests better than embargoes and isolation….It can be done if the next president has the wisdom and the courage to take Latin America seriously.
If and when that happens, we’ll say, Mojitos all around.