So here's my bet: The next president will spend a great deal of time worrying about foreign policy issues that Bob Schieffer never mentioned and voters never considered in Monday night's foreign policy debate. And no, it's not just because shit happens. It's actually much worse than that. Looking at the past three elections, I found that presidential debate moderators did a surprisingly bad job of picking the foreign-policy issues that presidents later confronted in office. And here's the really interesting part: the U.S. intelligence community did much, much better, pinpointing serious threats in their annual threat assessments.
In the 2000 election, terrorism was completely absent from all three of the debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush. Sure, it's tempting to put this one into the "who could have possibly known" category. That is exactly what Mitt Romney did Monday night, using this little tidbit of debate history to argue that strong militaries are necessary to defend against the unexpected.
But people did know about the growing terrorist threat before the 2000 debates and the 9/11 attacks. Not just any people. Senior people in the CIA and the FBI.
The CIA warned in both its 1999 and 2000 unclassified annual threat assessments to Congress that terrorism ranked second on the list of threats to U.S. national security. That's right. Second. Just behind the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. In his 1999 testimony before a public hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, CIA Director George Tenet remarked, "there is not the slightest doubt that Osama Bin Laden, his worldwide allies, and his sympathizers are planning further attacks against us. Despite progress against his networks, Bin Laden's organization has contacts virtually worldwide, including in the United States -- and he has stated unequivocally, Mr. Chairman, that all Americans are targets." In March of 2000, six months before the first Bush-Gore presidential debate, Tenet reiterated his concerns, telling Congress again in open session that bin Laden "wants to strike further blows against America" and that the CIA believed "he could still strike without additional warning."
Tenet was not alone. The FBI declared counterterrorism its number one priority in its 1998 strategic plan, three years before 9/11 and two years before the presidential debates. But the media did not notice. The Commission on Presidential Debates did not notice. Moderator Jim Lehrer did not notice. Neither did the two presidential campaigns.
The 2004 foreign policy debates between John Kerry and George W. Bush focused, understandably, on terrorism, homeland security, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the candidates also spent time responding to questions about Canadian drug imports and the draft. What was left out? A little country called China. Or more specifically, China's breakneck economic and military rise and its increasing assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific region. Here, too, the CIA was on it, flagging China's rise in its 2004 annual threat assessment several months before the debates began. The question of how to handle China's emergence as a rising power went on to become a major focus of President Bush's second term, it generated Obama's much ballyhooed "Asia pivot" earlier this year, and it remains one of the top foreign policy challenges of the foreseeable future.
The 2004 debates also never mentioned what turned out to be the mother of all foreign and domestic policy issues at the end of the Bush administration: The health of the global economy. To be fair, the global financial meltdown came as more of a surprise to economists and bankers than 9/11 did to intelligence officials. Whether the economic crisis should have been a surprise is another matter -- and a reminder that economists are world class at two things: exuding confidence even when wrong and predicting the past. But I digress.