YouTube video

On Friday, presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John McCain squared off in Oxford, Mississippi for the first of three presidential debates. Following the debate, Real News Network’s Senior Editor Paul Jay spoke with Investigative Journalist and Historian Gareth Porter about the foreign policy aspects.

Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to the next in our series of interviews responding to the debate. Barack Obama. John McCain. It’s only a few minutes since the debate concluded. And while the beginning of the debate was about the financial crisis, most of the debate, as preplanned, was about US foreign policy. And joining us to talk about what he thinks of this debate is Gareth Porter, a historian and investigative journalist who joins us from Washington, DC. Hi, Gareth.


JAY: So what’s your first reactions to the debate?

PORTER: Well, I’m afraid that my first reaction is to feel a bit cynical about the impact of presidential politics on foreign policy debate. And it seems that there is an iron law here at work, which is that no candidate can adopt a position on a foreign policy issue at any point in the memory of the mass media and then sort of modulate or perhaps make more sophisticated the position that he or she takes in the debate. And what we saw in the debate tonight, as far as foreign policy was concerned, was so predigested and predictable in the sense that the candidates have said the same thing over and over again in the past that it’s hard to tease out any really new nuggets for commentary. I’m not saying there were none. I think there were a couple of things that were rather interesting.

JAY: So who do you think won?

PORTER: Well, I think the question as to who won is really whether Barack Obama lost, in the sense that he did something or said something that would have tended to antagonize a very large part of the viewing audience, such as the way in which Al Gore conducted himself in the debate against George Bush in 2000, and that was by smirking and to seem a bit condescending. And I think by that measure, certainly, Barack Obama did very well. He didn’t do anything, I think, which would have caused him to lose the lead that he gained in recent days because of the financial crisis. And he did certainly give a good account of himself in terms of being in command of facts and of his own position and being able to state it very well, very succinctly, and very directly to the audience.

JAY: Mm. I had a very different impression. My impression was John McCain looked knowledgeable and authoritative and Obama looked defensive. So I don’t know if these things are just in the eyes of the beholder, but I thought you had a situation with John McCain, who, if anyone really knows his policies, McCain has been many times quite reckless and very militarist in what he wants to do and the kind of people he has as his advisors. This is bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran McCain. One of his chief advisors, James Woolsey, who, former head of the CIA, wanted to bomb Syria during the Israeli-Lebanon War. There’s so many places one could have really hit McCain, but I found that he just didn’t lay a glove on him. So do you think he just had to be safer?

PORTER: You’re right that it is in the eye of the beholder. I think to some extent the Obama approach here was to let McCain, you know, sort of hang himself to some extent. For example, I mean, Obama simply made the point that he recalled the bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran song, didn’t hammer away at it. I don’t think you have to, and I think McCain failed to say anything that would have detracted from the point that Obama was making about that. But I think, upon the substantive issues that they discussed, perhaps the most important thing that happened in the debate, as far as having an impact on the audience, was that Obama was able to tie in the Iraq War to the terrible economic situation and financial meltdown. And although I think he might have done a better job of it, I think did effectively make the point that there is a connection here between the financial meltdown, between the economic situation and the fact that the United States is effectively really making the equivalent of a bailout level of spending on wars in Iraq and the Pentagon budget every year. So I think, although he was very careful not to carry that very far, and I think that it’s too bad he was not able to make a broader statement about the terrible cost of the Pentagon budget and basically set that aside, as did McCain, that he did somehow make the connection between the need to get out of Iraq and the economic situation in this country and the position of the middle class and the suffering that it has undergone because of the economic crisis.

JAY: Well, if you’d been Obama and you were debating McCain, what would you have said if you wanted to try to lay a glove on him?

PORTER: Well, I mean, as far as attacking McCain is concerned, I would say that what Obama said was really quite effective. I mean, I think, for example, on the question of diplomacy, Obama was really quite effective in the way in which he made it clear that McCain really doesn’t understand diplomacy at all. And I think this is the one point where I must say that there was something new, at least as far as my understanding is concerned. Because of McCain’s handling of that issue of diplomacy with Iran, it became very clear for the first time that McCain really does not understand the idea, the concept, of preconditions. Over and over again he used that term “preconditions” in a way that suggested that he did not understand that the issue here is the insistence that the adversary must bow to a set of demands, the substantive demands, before the United States would even talk to Iran.

JAY: Right. And to be specific, although it may have been good if Obama had been specific, the big debate now is whether Iran continues to enrich uranium or not. And the Bush administration position, and apparently McCain, is we won’t talk until you suspend uranium enrichment, which is what they’re supposed to be talking about.

PORTER: But, well, of course, that is a level of detail that the presidential debates don’t seem to get into. That is sort of giving too much substance to the issue.

JAY: Well, maybe, except maybe if you do get into some of that detail, people will know you know what you’re talking about. Certainly some substance would help.

PORTER: Well, I think we’re up against the inherent limitations, perhaps, of a presidential debate in terms of the level of substance that the candidate is really able to get into, and I have to sympathize with Obama in regard to that situation.

JAY: So are you—. Sorry. Go ahead.

PORTER: I do think, though, that where Obama fell short most seriously was his inability or unwillingness to really go beyond the general point that the United States has to do more, send more troops to Afghanistan, because that’s where the central front of the war on terror is. And that, I’m afraid, is the worst example of this problem that I alluded to in the beginning, which is that once you take a position on one of these big national security, foreign policy issues, you’re sort of stuck with it. At least that seems to be the conviction of presidential campaigns—we’re stuck with it—and therefore you can’t really offer anything more thoughtful that relates to that issue. And I’m afraid what happens on the issue of Afghanistan is that Obama is stuck with the idea that the strategic issue is one that we must do more in Afghanistan, and that’s that. And I have a feeling that the Obama campaign understands really more than is being the American people [sic], that they understand that putting more troops into Afghanistan is not going to be enough.

JAY: But I also think that he has to say there’s more wrong with the Iraq War than taking your eye off that ball. I mean, maybe a million people have died in that war, and it’s about more than just taking your eye off the ball. This question of the judgment, the one thing Obama did, this judgment not to go in, I think he could have made a lot more of it. But we’ll be talking a lot more about this in the coming days. Thanks so much for joining us, Gareth.

PORTER: Thanks for having me, Paul.

JAY: And thank you for joining us tonight.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Gareth Porter is a historian and investigative journalist on US foreign and military policy analyst. He writes regularly for Inter Press Service on US policy towards Iraq and Iran. Author of four books, the latest of which is Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam.