Candidates Tackle Foreign Policy In First Debate

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Foreign policy took center stage in the first round of the 2008 presidential debates between Obama and McCain on Friday. Ted Koppel, NPR news analyst, weighs in on what the candidates said — or didn't — say during the debate.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington, and here are headlines of some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. The House of Representatives voted down the Bush-Paulson bailout bill earlier today, 228 against 205 for. Stocks plummeted on the news at the moment.

They're down 639 points. The White House spokesman said President Bush was very disappointed. And Attorney General Michael Mukasey named a special council today to investigate the firing of nine U.S. prosecutors. The move came after an internal Justice Department investigation found the firings had been improper.

And Wachovia becomes the latest major bank to be sold off in order to stave collapse. Citigroup bought the Charlotte, North Carolina bank in a deal orchestrated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Details on all those stories and of course, much more later today on All Things Considered. Tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, for some women it runs in the family. A genetic mutation that dramatically increases the odds of some kinds of cancer.

Joanna Rudnick joins us to talk about her new film on preemptive surgery in the family, tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Friday's presidential debate was billed as a faceoff over foreign policy, events of course happened, and the first half hour the debate focused instead on the ongoing economic crisis and the proposed Wall Street bailout.

Foreign policy eventually did get its due, and that's where we want to start this week's conversation with Ted Koppel who joins us on many Mondays. He's managing editor of the Discovery Channel as well. We want to hear from you. What are the foreign policy issues most important to you? Did they get addressed during Friday's debate? What did the candidates say that interested you? What did they not say? 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org. And Ted, always nice to have you on the program.

TED KOPPEL,: Thank you, Neal. If you'll excuse me for a moment I have to run out and bury some stocks in the backyard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's been an extraordinary day. The stock market down about six percent at this point. They began that foreign-policy debate talking about the financial crisis, and was that legitimate to start a foreign-policy debate with that issue?

KOPPEL: Listen, I fear we're going to drift in the same general direction, Neal. It's - it - who would have thought that just a few months ago, that it would be so difficult to focus a discussion on the Middle East, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan, China?

There are plenty of problems out there, Georgia, the one that's out there next to the old Soviet Union. There are plenty of foreign-policy problems out there, and you would have thought they would have had plenty to talk about, but by comparison with the extraordinary, economic problems that are confronting not only the United States, but the whole world right now, it's hard to separate the two.

CONAN: And indeed in many respects, the foreign - the financial crisis is a foreign issue.

KOPPEL: Well, it is a foreign issue, and quite frankly, as bravely as they tried to confront the foreign policy issues, they really didn't, and they didn't talk about many of them essentially. Senator McCain restated his position on the Iraq war, which is that he was right about the surge, and that Senator Obama has not acknowledged that he was right, and Senator Obama restated his position which is that Senator McCain was wrong about the Iraq War in the first place, and he was right. And Senator McCain refuses to acknowledge that, and having restated their positions on that, there wasn't a great deal more that got stated on the issue of foreign policy.

CONAN: There were all kinds of things - maybe because of time restrictions, but all kinds of things that did not come up, including - I don't believe anybody mentioned the word China.

KOPPEL: No. And quite frankly, you would think that they would have done so, if only because China holds and it's not altogether clear precisely how much they hold, but they have, U.S. Treasury Bills, in the amount of somewhere between $600 billion and $1 trillion.

Think about that in terms of the extraordinary angst and pain that the Congress is going through right now, in terms of getting out own treasury secretary the right to dispose of seven hundred and - $700 billion worth of credit. The Chinese could simply by selling those treasury bills, put the United States in an even deeper hole than it is right now.

But of course, they're going to be disinclined to do so, precisely because there is interconnectedness throughout the world, and we are the biggest market in the world for Chinese goods, and the last thing in the world they want to do right now is to bankrupt the United States.

CONAN: You don't suppose they'd be willing to use that money to buy up some toxic mortgages, do you?

KOPPEL: Well, I think they would be willing to use that money, and almost certainly will be ready to use that money to buy some of the bargains that will be coming or that will be coming available here in the United States. Whether that is real estate, or whether that is some major businesses, who knows? But what the Chinese government has done, is essentially what the Chinese people have done that we in the United States do not do, and that is they are a nation of savers. They've got all kinds of cash available to them.

And I have to believe that over the next few weeks and months, they're going to be putting some of that cash to good use right here in the United States.

CONAN: Were talking with Ted Koppel about what was said, and what wasn't Friday night in the foreign policy debate. You're listening to Talk of the Nation, 800-989-8255. If you'd like to join the conversation, email us talk@npr.org. Jim is on the line. Jim, calling from Chicago, Illinois.

JIM (Caller): Hi. Mr. Koppel, he anticipated my question, but I was just shocked by the whack of discussion of China, and also he brought up this point that (unintelligible) - you know, what we did with the British, with the Suez Crisis. But I guess it's even beyond those financial aspects.

What about, for example, the stuff of melanin, and milk, and so on? I mean, our relationship with China is becoming so - or has been so prominent. You would think that China would be on the topic for all the debates. So...

Mr. KOPELL: Yeah. I can understand the level of concern over the Chinese health problem, the milk problem, just as there was eight months ago over the problem of some of the toxic toys, the toxic paint on the toys. But I must tell you that the level of engagement between our two economies is such, and I will point only to one issue and that is the automobile industry, which is tanking in this country, and is just hemorrhaging red ink, while U.S. automakers, Ford, General Motors are doing extraordinary well, selling their products in China. Building them in China, selling them in China.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

Mr. JIM: Thank you.

CONAN: As they addressed other issues around the world, I mean, this is a highly, political moment. I think history suggests that most Americans tune in to the first debate, and pay less attention to the others, maybe proved wrong at the vice-presidential debate.

But in any case, this was a highly, political moment, and as you looked at it, a lot people said, well, this is John McCain's turf. If he's going to change the dynamic of the race, he's going to do it in the foreign policy debate.

Mr. KOPELL: That is indeed what people were saying, Neal. And you know, people are also saying that Sarah Palin is going to be lucky if she emerges in one piece from the vice-presidential debate. I always think these assumptions in advance of a debate are dangerous things. A fact of the matter is that both Senator McCain and Senator Obama are very bright men.

And you know, these debates, although they last 90 minutes, and you would think that it could get into a certain amount of substance, what always disappoints me about these political debates is that very little substance gets exchanged. And they do end up simply resorting to some of their tried and true campaign positions, and rarely move much beyond them.

CONAN: Is it the job of the moderator to try to encourage them? And we know this (unintelligible) - it's the job of the moderator to try to get the guests to think it's very difficult to get presidential candidates at this stage in the campaign, as they say off message. They're going to say what they're ready to say, and they're not going to say anything else.

MR. KOPPEL: I've done it a couple of times, and you run a grave risk if you inject yourself too much in the debate, then people accuse you of forgetting that you're only the moderator, and that you're not one of the candidates.

And if you don't inject yourself sufficiently, then you let the candidates run the show, and - you know , I think Jim Larry is particularly skilled and gentle doing this kind of thing, but neither one of them - I mean, just think how many times he tried to get Senator Obama to specify precisely where he would cut back budgetary expenditures. I think he tried three times, failed each time. After a while, you just have to concede that is not your debate.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Josh, and Josh with us from Akron, Ohio.

JOSH (Caller): Hi. I - one of the things that I was most disappointed by in the debates was the lack - neither candidate really talked about what they would change in the way that we talk to other nations. And they sort of touched on it when they were talking about Obama's statements that he would hold talks with Iran.

But really, my concern was more with the nations that we already talk to. Nations like North Korea, where we're holding talks, but I feel a lot of times due to the Bush administration policies, we're not really saying anything substantive, and we're not hearing what they're saying, and that's really hurt our position in the world, and I would have liked to hear a lot more about how these candidates would have changed the way that we talk to other nations.

CONAN: Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, on his way apparently back to North Korea to try to revive discussions that have broken off, after the North Koreans complained that the United States did not take them off the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

The United States, of course, said that they had not come through on enough of their commitments to provide information and monitoring of their nuclear activities. Ted, though he's right. North Korea didn't come up.

Mr. KOPPEL: It didn't come up. Iran did and you heard, yet another one of those sort of silly campaign exchangers, which wasn't really focusing on the issue. The fact of the matter is that Republican and Democratic presidents over the years have always continued to negotiate with, and discuss with, and on occasion, even have summit meetings with countries that were perceived to be our greatest adversaries, as with the Soviet Union over many years.

It's foolishness to suggest that very much is achieved by not having any contact at all. And I'm not sure that one can point to very many examples where the United States has been able to extract anything. I mean, Iraq was just one further example where a great deal was made of - on economic pressure and in the final analysis that was deemed to have failed.

The notion that somehow you are giving into the other side by acknowledging that some kind of negotiation is worthwhile, I thinks is a foolish notion.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Josh.

JOSH: Thank you.

CONAN: And were getting bunches of emails like this. Ben, in Tucson Arizona. China was mentioned in the debate. Barack Obama mentioned that China is launching a space flight in an effort to distinguish the competitiveness of the Chinese in respect to education, and an upcoming lead in technology.

Michael in Spokane, Washington. Obama did mention China. He talked about how our Iraq for - focused foreign policy has opened the door for China to engage and invest in Africa and Latin America. And Dan in San Francisco. Senator McCain brought up forcefully the debt we owe to China. It was in the contacts of controlling government spending.

We're talking today with Ted Koppel about the foreign-policy debate and foreign policy in general as we do on many Mondays here on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Matt on the line. Matt with us from Salt Lake City.

MATT (Caller): Hi. Yeah, I'm interested to hear what Mr. Koppel has to say as to whether he felt based on the debate at least, if there was any substance in difference between the candidates. I would agree with some foreign observers that at the end of the day, they essentially agree on Iran, whether to engage and how to engage. At the end of the day, what's going to happen in Iraq is largely going to be the same. I'd be pleased to hear Mr. Koppel's thoughts.

KOPPEL: I must tell you, Matt. I don't think - and just to address at the same time the emails that Neal just read - the fact of the matter is you're quite correct. China was mentioned. When I say, it wasn't addressed, I meant in terms of the debate. It's not as though the issue of China was debated.

Frankly, I don't think any real foreign-policy issues were debated, and that's where I think that particular debate with quotation marks around it failed. You're quite right, Matt. I think they more or less agree on Iraq right now. If you'll listen carefully, there's not that much of a difference anymore between what Senator McCain is saying and what Barack Obama is saying.

Senator Obama clearly is conceding that a number of troops are going to have to remain behind. What number, of course he wouldn't say, for how long, of course, he wouldn't say. And quite frankly, neither will Senator McCain.

So, the difference now between the two of them is not whether there'll be a total withdrawal or whether we'll remain, but simply how many men and women remain behind, and to what end, and for how long?

CONAN: Is there fundamental disagreement? Another issue that did come up was Pakistan, and that this was mentioned - not necessarily Pakistan as Pakistan, but in relation to the war in Afghanistan.

Mr. KOPPEL: Well, although very interestingly enough, Neal, I think there was a difference, now that I think about it, between the of them, in that Senator Obama has suggested that he would be prepared to intervene quite forcefully, if the Pakistani government doesn't do so, and in that, he now seems to be on pretty much the same page as the Bush administration, and I'm not - ironically, I think Senator McCain be - may be the one who is a little more dovish on that issue, and who feels that that may prove to be dangerous.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call.

MATT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a last caller in. This is Caroline. Caroline with us from Pontiac in Michigan.

CAROLINE (Caller): Hi there. I also watched the debate, and I disagree with your guest in that I thought that after Obama was hard pressed to find out where he was going to cut funding, I thought eventually, he did say he was going to cut it by ending the war. Which I mean not immediately, but in a period of time, that's where our major funding is going to, and I thought as I - I mean, can he agree or disagree? I guess I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Well, forgive me Caroline. Hasn't he said that he would use the money saved from prosecuting the war in Iraq to pay for health care and other things too?

CAROLINE: Yeah, well he did. I mean, I just, you know - of course I only watched it once and if I had to go back, but I thought, oh, yeah, like why didn't I think of that? You know, he did after he couldn't really answer, and I remember that. He couldn't answer, but finally he's like, what about the war? Well, look at all the money, you know?

Why can't we, you know, kind of cut back, or eliminate, or you know?

CONAN: Mm-hm.

CAROLINE: Get out of this and save a little money that way. A lot of money.

CONAN: OK, Caroline.

CAROLINE: I'll take off (unintelligible).

CONAN: OK, thanks very much for the call, and Ted, I think he spent that money a couple of times.

Mr. KOPPE: Well, Caroline's right. Absolutely that it would save an enormous amount of money if the war could be ended - or at least U.S. participation in the war could be ended completely. But I'm not quite sure I heard anybody say, how that would happen. As I said before, it's one thing to talk about extracting U.S. forces from Iraq.

It's another thing when you ask, well, how soon, how many, at what kind of a rate, and there, there is no clarity whatsoever, and that of course is going to determine just how much money can be saved, if indeed any can be.

CONAN: Ted Koppel, thanks very much. Appreciate your time as always.

Mr. KOPPEL: Thank you. Ted Koppel, managing editor at the Discovery Channel and a Talk of the Nation news analyst, joined us from NPR's - joined us from Bethesda, Maryland. Before we sign off today, an update on our top story, President Bush says he's disappointed by the House of Representative's vote against the bailout bill.

He says he'll continue to work with members of Congress, and find a way to move forward. One hundred thirty-three Republicans voted against the measure, along with 95 Democrats. The news hit Wall Street hard. At last glance, the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 593 points. Stay tuned to NPR News for more coverage on All things Considered and throughout the day.

I'm Neal Conan, this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News in Washington.

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