Closely-fought presidential campaigns can confound expectations by constricting -- rather than broadening -- public debate about significant policy issues, a phenomenon most recently on display during the debate between Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Rep. Paul D. Ryan.
The two men, offering a preview of the foreign policy issues expected to arise at the Oct. 16 and Oct. 22 debates between President Obama and Mitt Romney, mostly competed to demonstrate the muscularity of their teams' approaches to a vexing set of international challenges.
Each vowed their party would play tough with Iran and stick by the current hard line leadership in Israel; spend whatever is needed for critical U.S. military operations and forces; safely extract U.S. troops from Afghanistan; and efficiently engineer the ouster of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
Ryan argued that Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon has been relentless, and that it is closer now to achieving its goal than it was when Obama won election. Biden responded that Iran is more isolated now than ever before, and said international sanctions are seriously harming the Iranian economy.
Both men were actually right, but their convictions masked the fact that much mystery remains about how the drama over the Iranian program will play out.
Will the toll of tough sanctions eventually cause Iranian citizens to sack their leadership and reverse course? Could that happen soon? Will the sanctions -- or the threat of the government's ouster by its own citizens -- convince Iran's leaders never to mate fissile materials with the other components of a working bomb? Or will the heightened foreign pressures only goad Iran to move faster and farther along the nuclear path?
Public opinion polling on Iran is generally poor, and rife with tendentious or misleading questions. But there is general support for pursuing sanctions before undertaking any military action against Iran -- the course the administration is now on. At the same time, neither candidate was candid enough to say frankly, "Look, we don't know how this is going to turn out, and there are no guarantees."
Nor did either candidate say much about the consequences of what many politicians in Washington claim is the only alternative to sanctions, namely a sizable military attack on Iran. Biden skirted the question by asserting that "it is not in my purview to talk about classified information, but we feel quite confident we could deal a serious blow to the Iranians." He warned vaguely that the outcome "could prove catastrophic, if we didn't do it with precision," but did not explain how such strikes might be considered "precise" when some Iranian air defenses and other key targets are located near many Iranian civilians. Ryan ducked the issue entirely.
The contours of the debate were also too narrow to touch on claims by some intelligence and regional experts that Iran's attainment of a full or near-weapons capability might not be as dangerous as the Israeli leadership -- and Obama and Romney -- have asserted. Since Obama promised, as his campaign for reelection shifted into high gear, that America will not let Iran get a nuclear bomb, dissent over that absolutist posture has mostly been relegated to a few academic journals.
Citing Ambassador Chris Stevens' violent death in Benghazi, Libya, Ryan said that "what we are watching on our TV screens is the unraveling of the Obama foreign policy," which he said was making America less safe. Biden responded by trying to shift the topic to U.S. slaying of Osama Bin Laden, and by blaming the intelligence community for initially attributing Stevens' death to a mob, rather than a death squad.