The List: What McCain and Obama Didn't Talk About

Some of the most pressing international issues the next president will face were barely discussed during the 2008 campaign. How will McCain or Obama handle them? We’ll just have to wait and see.


Chinas Rise

The issue: Between the crackdown on protesters in Tibet, the Sichuan earthquake, and the buildup to the Summer Olympics, China dominated the worlds headlines for much of 2008. A veritable cottage industry emerged of pundits forecasting the United States decline and Chinas emergence as an economic and military superpower. Yet the country that is home to 20 percent of the worlds population, that owns 20 percent of U.S. foreign debt, that has the worlds largest army, and that is Americas largest trading partner was strangely absent from this presidential election. Tellingly, during the only presidential debate focused on foreign policy, not one question on China was asked.

Why it will matter: Although Chinas growth has slowed along with the rest of the global economy in recent months, the West is still enviously eyeing its $1.9 trillion in currency reserves. If Beijing agrees to Western requests and contributes to a global bailout fund, you can bet the Chinese will demand more sway in global financial bodies such as the International Monetary Fund. Military analysts are also watching Chinas military modernization and fledgling space program with increasing alarm.

What was said: Theres fairly little daylight between Barack Obamas and John McCains China positions. Obama promises to stop borrowing [money] from China to send to Saudi Arabia, and McCain has decried the half-a-trillion dollars we owe China. Obama spoke out against the Tibet crackdown, though he has pledged to not demonize China; McCain also favors engagement but stresses that how a nation treats its citizens is a legitimate subject of international concern.

Jorge Juarez/AFP/Getty Images

Drug Violence in Mexico

The issue: If a U.S. ally deployed 40,000 troops into combat in its own territory and more than 4,000 deaths resulted from the fighting in less than two years, you would think it would raise a few eyebrows. If that country were right on the U.S. border, you would think it would be treated as a major crisis. Yet the violence that has wracked Mexico since President Felipe Caldern declared war on his countrys drug traffickers last year has been largely ignored, not just in the presidential race, but by most of the U.S. media. Meanwhile, gruesome events such as the discovery of 12 decapitated corpses in the Yucatn, the bombing of an Independence Day parade that killed seven in Michoacan, and the assassination of a popular young mayor in a Mexico City suburb are becoming increasingly common. The cartels have also successfully infiltrated national and local police units.

Why it matters: Sadly, the United States is funding both sides of this war. While Mexico receives U.S. taxpayer money to fight the war on drugs through a $400 million aid package, the cartels perpetrating the barbaric violence are being funded by Americans demand for cocaine and narcotics. Its also estimated that 90 percent of the weapons used by the cartels are purchased at U.S. gun stores and gun shows, a consequence of lax gun-control laws north of the border. U.S. drug czar John Walters has also warned that the violence is starting to spill over into the southern United States.

What was said: Both McCain and Obama have praised Calderns crackdown. McCain visited Mexico in July and described the fighting as a common struggle with a common enemy. Obama has pledged to increase U.S. aid and focus on issues such as corruption. But if either candidate is open to rethinking the four-decade war on drugs that has done almost nothing to reduce U.S. demand or foreign supply, he hasnt mentioned it during this campaign.


Instability in Somalia

The issue: Somalia is the worlds most failed state and potentially also one of the most dangerous. The country has been essentially without a central government since the early 1990s. Armed militias and extremist groups operate more or less openly. Neighboring Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in 2006 to push the increasingly powerful Islamist coalition out of Mogadishu, the capital. Since then, however, the Islamists have regrouped and control wide swaths of territory. Somalias instability has also spilled over onto the high seas, with pirate gangs staging ever more brazen attacks on shipping through the Gulf of Aden. At least 60 ships have been attacked this year, including the headline-grabbing hijacking of a Ukrainian freighter carrying tanks and military equipment.

Why it matters: The Horn of Africa could very well be the next major front in the war on terror. U.S helicopters attacked a suspected al Qaeda safe house near the Kenyan border in January 2007. Leaders of the Shabaab militant group that controls much of southern Somalia have openly stated their support for Osama bin Laden. Piracy is also hurting international trade. Two major shipping firms are now sending ships around the southern tip of Africa rather than risk the more direct Suez Canal route that passes near Somalia, and NATO has dispatched warships to the region to fight the pirates.

What was said: Almost nothing. McCain advisor Randy Scheunemann has used al Qaedas gains after the U.S. withdrawal from Somalia as a cautionary tale for Iraq, an interesting choice of example because McCain strongly supported the withdrawal. Obamas advisors say he wants to recalibrate the U.S. approach to Somalia, but its unknown what that might entail.


The Global Food Crisis

The issue: Caused by a perfect storm of economic factors including restrictive trade barriers, rising fuel prices, and increased demand from China and India, as well as poor harvests, food prices rose to record highs last spring and summer, threatening to push hundreds of millions around the world below the poverty line. Food riots broke out in Egypt, Indonesia, Haiti, and elsewhere. Food prices have decreased somewhat along with those of other commodities in recent months, but experts worry these decreases could actually exacerbate the problem as farmers cut back their harvests and rich countries focus on their own economic woes.

Why it matters: Along with China, the United States is one of the worlds primary food suppliers. It is the largest exporter of wheat, corn, and soybeans. So when the United States pumps billions into agricultural boondoggles like corn-based ethanol, it can cause significant fluctuations in global food prices. Somalia and Pakistan ought to be clear enough examples of why political instabilityto which rising food prices are contributingcan make the world a more dangerous place.

What was said: The senator from Illinois is a major supporter of ethanol subsidies, a stance that has drawn repeated attacks from McCain. These attacks seem to be more motivated by McCains anti-pork principles than concern over food prices, however. Obama continues to support the subsidies but stresses that they are a transitional technology and that the United States should be mindful of the effect they have on food prices.


Illegal Immigration

The issue: Considering how important the issue of immigration was in the Republican primarya backlash on the right that sometimes veered into outright xenophobia very nearly cost McCain the nominationits disappearance during the general election has been remarkable. Although immigration into the United States has slowed in recent years, a consequence of the slumping U.S. economy, the population of undocumented immigrants remains at an all-time high of nearly 12 million. Living in constant fear of deportation, illegal immigrants are prone to mistreatment by employers and lack access to basic social services. The United States porous southern border has also led to an increase in violent crime and drug trafficking on both sides of the Rio Grande.

Why it matters: You dont have to be Lou Dobbs to see a problem with the United States not enforcing the laws on its own books. With little action to tackle the problem on the federal level, state and local law enforcement agencies are taking the matter into their own hands, resulting in the diversion of resources and inconsistent enforcement. Theres bipartisan support for comprehensive reform that would combine tougher border enforcement with a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who already live in the United States, but some skill will be required for the next president to cut through the extremist demagoguery and convince skeptical voters.

What was said: McCains immigration stance has to be counted as the biggest flip-flop of his presidential run. The maverick Republican who joined with Democrats to support comprehensive immigration reform has shifted to a secure the borders first policy. Obama continues to support reform but has toughened his tone to emphasize that immigrants must get right with the law. Given that the moderate stance of both candidates is out of touch with a significant portion of the electorate, they seem to have both decided to downplay the issue. It hasnt come up in any of their debates.