In an agenda that reflects concerns about the direction of the “Arab spring,” progress in the Afghanistan war and the unresolved standoff over Iran’s nuclear programs, four of the six topics flagged by the CBS News host for 15-minute segments in the Florida debate deal with the predominantly Islamic part of the world stretching from North Africa to Pakistan.
They are: “Our longest war – Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines – Israel and Iran” and (in two parts), “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism.”
The only other location specifically identified is China (“The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World”). The sixth topic, “America’s role in the world,” is flexible enough to allow President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney to pursue other matters should they wish, such as the place of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy.
Whether that quarter-hour segment also provides an opening to touch on two of Washington’s most important international relationships – the transatlantic one and ties with the rest of the Western Hemisphere – remains to be seen.
Also conspicuously absent on the topic sheet is Russia, despite the focus Obama administration has put onto the “reset” of strained relations with Moscow.
Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency signals more testing times for the next administration, but Democrats have scoffed at Romney’s labeling of Russia as “our number one geopolitical foe.” Republicans, meanwhile, slammed Obama for quietly offering the Kremlin “more flexibility” on missile defense after his presumed re-election.
Russia’s status as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council makes it a key factor in efforts by the next administration to deal with major challenges across the globe, topped by reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bringing an end to Syria’s regionally-destabilizing civil war.
China has presented the other main Security Council headache for Washington, and its inclusion in the debate plan is not unexpected. Romney has paid significant, critical attention to China during his campaign for the White House, and the subject dominated the foreign policy portion of last week’s town hall style-debate in Hempstead, N.Y.
Still, the rest of the Asia-Pacific could get short shrift on Monday night, notwithstanding the Obama administration’s emphasis on its “pivot” to the region.
The fact that Schieffer is dedicating two segments – one-third of the entire debate – to “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism” suggests that the ongoing political wrangling over the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya will feature strongly. Republicans charge that the administration compromised diplomatic security and misled the American people about the attack; Democrats have accused Romney of politicizing the incident.
The Middle East segments will also provide the opportunity for questions around the U.S. response to the broader upheavals in the region, in which Islamists have been – or look set to become – the main beneficiaries, including troubled relations with the traditional leader of the Arab world, Egypt, and the unfolding crisis in Syria.