The presidential foreign policy debate is over, and on balance, we're little wiser than we were before it began about the intentions of the two candidates. Nor is that surprising: foreign policy is even less amenable than domestic policy to two-minute responses to ludicrous questions: "Is it time for us to divorce Pakistan?" (Were we ever married?) "Would you have stuck with Mubarak?" (Were we ever asked?)
Both candidates would have done better to prep with New York Times Washington correspondent David Sanger's Sunday morning commentary "The Debatable World," which concluded by pointing out, accurately, that "The question of when America should intervene around the world and when to leave it to others has been the subtext of most major national security debates here for the last decade."
So it has, and the sad reality that Monday evening's debate ended without either contestant feeling compelled to answer that question with more than meaningless bromides is the best commentary on the entire exercise.
Not everyone is troubled by that, it should be noted. StratFor's George Friedman, for example, argues that "the subject of the debate and the specific answers in the debate are doubly unimportantÖThe candidates weren't speaking to those who make their livings involved in or watching foreign affairs. Nor can we possibly extract from the debate what either candidate intends to do in foreign policy."
He's right. Ordinary Americans seem to have arrived at their own answer to Sanger's question, however. According to recent data from YouGov's Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, among several proposed future uses of U.S. military force - insuring access to oil, intervening in a civil war, assisting the spread of democracy, destroying terrorist camps, and helping our allies - only the last two generate anything like broad public support.
That shows praiseworthy perspicacity on the public's part, inasmuch as interventions during the past few decades for every other purpose cited, with the possible but debatable exception of access to oil, have proved militarily disappointing at best, disastrous at worst, and inordinately expensive in either case.
So while Friedman might be correct in expecting little in the way of substance from Monday's debate, the real question is whether either of the candidates, in the privacy of his own thoughts, recognizes the increasing bankruptcy of the foreign and military policies we've been executing for the past decade and more.
As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat commented on Wednesday, those who watched the debate "would have no sense that there are any alternative grand strategies available to America beyond our current focus on terrorism and the greater Middle East and, of course, the occasional detour into China-bashing."
In fact, such strategic alternatives are desperately in need of examination. In a recent article in The Washington Quarterly, National War College Professor Michael J. Mazarr argues that "the post-war U.S. approach to strategy is rapidly becoming insolvent and unsustainable not only because Washington can no longer afford it but also, crucially, because it presumes an American relationship with friends, allies, and rivals that is the hallmark of a bygone era."
Instead, Mazaar argues, the U.S. needs to fashion a grand strategy that, while not retreating from the world, accepts that the U.S. must be much more selective and self-disciplined in the way in which we engage with it. It's an argument that should be familiar to readers of this column, which has repeatedly made the same case.
That neither candidate was prepared candidly to address this central foreign policy issue during Monday's debate was disappointing but unsurprising. When accusations of diplomatic spinelessness and military recklessness compete for sound-bites with mandatory but meaningless eulogies to American exceptionalism, we shouldn't expect candidates so closely matched to risk sounding thoughtful.
The question is whether, apart from debate performance, there's any way to judge how each man would tend to approach the challenge of dealing with a rapidly changing world - given that very volatility, more precision than tendency is not to be had. On Mr. Obama' part, of course, we have a foreign policy track record from which voters can make their own predictions about his future propensity to commit military force.
Having no such track record, Mr. Romney offers less predictive evidence. Instead, we perforce must infer his tendencies in that regard from those with whom he has surrounded himself.
So perhaps the real question for Americans concerned about U.S. foreign policy during the next four years may be, how comfortable would they be with Bush/Cheney acolytes once again steering that policy from the Pentagon and State Department?