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Do We Have to Talk About the Lapel Pins Again?
By Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle,
Authors of The Voter's Survival Kit, a series of election guides from and the book Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis

When it comes to international issues, a lot of Americans aren't on top of the details. In 2007 only 36 percent of Americans could name Vladimir Putin as the leader of Russia, although maybe he's raised his profile here recently by pummeling  Georgia into the ground. Let's not even speculate about the number of Americans who initially thought there were Russian armies headed to Macon. Presumably that's been cleared up by now.

But since so much of the voting public is so hazy on the details of foreign policy, campaign debates about it often nose-dive into fights over which candidate is "stronger" and which is more 'patriotic."  

Can we just stop it now? Let's just stipulate that Senator McCain and Senator Obama are both plenty strong.  A spineless person doesn't endure years in a prisoner-of-war camp and go on to thrive in a highly-regarded career in public life. A weak person doesn't rise up from humble beginnings to head up the Harvard Law Review and become a senator and candidate for president of the United States. It just doesn't happen.

And how they've lived their lives suggests, to us at least, that they're both very patriotic. They may have gone about it in different ways, but they have both chosen lives of service to the country. Senator McCain saw combat in the military. Senator Obama passed on a lucrative law career to become a community organizer helping the jobless.  These decisions show that these two men care about their country, that they're both willing to set aside personal gain to protect and enrich the lives and hopes of fellow citizens. As Americans, we should be proud of them both.

OK. We have two strong, patriotic men running for president. And most Americans (let's be frank here) probably aren't going to follow nitty-gritty discussions over which countries should be in NATO and which shouldn't.  So, does that mean talking about the country's foreign policy in this election season is a non-starter? Should we just check it off the list and let the professionals handle it?

We don’t think so. In fact, we think there are some extremely important questions the two candidates could and should be talking about -- ones that don’t require the average voter to bone up on historical relations between the Russians and Ukraine or be on top of the operations of the World Trade Organization..

Maybe the candidates could talk about some questions like these:

Is the U.S. striking the right balance between using its military power and using diplomacy in terms of its dealings around the world? Why or why not?

What makes the U.S. secure? Military strength? Economic strength?  Top-notch intelligence? Having close allies? Other areas? What do you plan to do to insure that we're strong in the areas that you consider most important?

What is a smart, effective strategy for fighting terrorism aimed at the U.S. and our people? Do we have it now, or do we need to make some changes? What are they?

Are we putting too much or too little emphasis on working with other countries? Are there places where we need to work harder to get international cooperation, even if we don't get to do everything our own way? What are they? Are there issues that are best addressed by the U.S. acting in our own way and in our own time? What are those?

As a country, are we striking the right balance between having a strong foreign policy versus working on issues here at home? Would you put more emphasis on our role abroad or less? Tell us why?
These are all questions of national priorities and strategy -- things voters can and should be able to make judgments on without getting a master's degree in international relations. These are fundamental choices the next president will have to make, and the public ought to know how the two candidates would approach them.

But we're not so optimistic that questions like these will come up in the debates. Based on what's admired in the news biz today, the moderators may plan to invest their time seeing if they can get one of these strong, patriotic men -- one of whom will be our president -- to confuse the Sunnis and Shiites or perhaps slip up on some dictator's name. Or maybe they'll want to get back to the lapel pins. That's a real national security issue for you.

©2008 Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle

Author Bio
Jean Johnson and Scott Bittle are lead authors of The Voter's Survival Kit, a series of election guides from Public Agenda and the book Where Does the Money Go? Your Guided Tour to the Federal Budget Crisis (HarperCollins, 2008). Public Agenda is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization devoted to helping citizens tackle tough issues. The Survival Kit is available at