The third American presidential debate was of negligible interest as a test of the qualities of the candidates, whatever it did or did not do to the presidential horserace odds — probably not much.

What it did accomplish was to add to the evidence that the United States is intellectually adrift upon an exceptionally turbulent sea running in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf, and on the larger scene, Washington is blundering into serious trouble with Russia and probably with a China that is on the edge of both foreign and domestic crises.

The debate emphasized again the problem of leadership. The president came to the direction of American foreign relations from law school and a background as a community organizer in Chicago. This is no fault of his own: which of us would turn down the presidential nomination because we doubted our qualifications to meet the responsibilities we would face? One can always learn on the job, and there will be plenty of professionals around, as well as know-it-all press advisers, like this one. However, conducting the international policy of a great power is not to be picked up like accounting or auto mechanics.

Thousands are still paying the price for this in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mr. Obama was totally in the hands of the officers commanding the war in Afghanistan when he took office, and everyone knew it. When he finally met them in Kabul, he had no choice but to ask, “What’s the plan?” They replied: Troop Surge; Civilian Surge of Nation Builders; Creation of an Afghan Army and a Capable and Responsible Democratic Government. “Oh,” the president replied. “That sounds good. When will this be finished?”

They were a little vague on that, but later, as the 2012 elections approached, the president announced that whatever the earlier projections, the troops would come home by the end of 2014. (My own opinion is that they will be coming home a lot sooner than that. But the U.S. Army travels heavy, building little Americas with the conveniences of home for the troops wherever it goes. It takes a long time to pack up and leave; the Afghan roads are precipitous; and sometimes there is no time to pack, but only to scramble. We shall see.)

As for Gov. Romney, whom the president nailed on the naval ship count (the U.S. Navy currently has nine carrier battle groups, while the rest of the world has none, and we have two more carriers to spare, just in case). He too is a man whose military and strategic knowledge comes mainly from reading the papers.

He has in the past expressed his regret that he missed the chance to fight alongside his age cohort of young Americans in the paddy fields of Vietnam, but like virtually every one of his counterparts in American politics today, he found that other priorities pressed, and that he had to appeal to his draft board for three college deferments and a 31-month religious deferment as a Mormon missionary in France (where he learned to speak French; something we don’t talk about).

He believes that the president has made America “look weak,” and when in the White House, he will take action to assure that the U.S.A. is again seen by Arab terrorists, our number-one geostrategic enemy, Russia, and the Chinese currency cheaters, as the global superpower not to be messed with. (One assumes that being in finance all his life, he appreciates that it is important not to be so unpleasant to China that it asks for debt repayment, which would sink the American economy and the Chinese yuan, and produce global panic).

He will bring our troops home from Afghanistan when the generals assure him that the Taliban are on the run, and Kabul is a solid American ally, just like Baghdad. Moreover, it’ll be war with Iran if his pal Bibi says that’s what needed.

To what purpose? Neither of the candidates has troubled to tell us how they see the international role of the United States in the future — to accomplish what positive goal? It used to be that the U.S. intended to shape a new and peaceful international order. That was at the beginning of the last century. Woodrow Wilson was, of course, the dreamer who launched the United States upon this course, and saw the U.S. Congress reject it, and the League of Nations, without American participation, failed.

Franklin Roosevelt relaunched it with the United Nations, drafted by the U.S. State Department. It now has become an obstacle to American policy, which has come to look upon international law and justice as impediments to the national interest.

With the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush once again proposed that the United States would sponsor a “New World Order.” It was his own son who overturned that vision of a reformed international community. However, all three of them were illusions.

What is now offered by a renewed Obama administration, or a Romney government? We have learned from the campaign that the priority of Democratic as well as Republican contenders for the presidency is to keep the United States “Number One” in the world.

This seems to mean preventing or punishing China if it presses its claims on Taiwan, neighboring islands and disputed territories, and to check Russian influence in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Ukraine and the Baltic states, as well as Russian efforts to promote its national commercial and political interests in Central and Western Europe.

It is to give unqualified support to an Israeli policy of aggressive territorial annexation in or of Palestine, and the consequences of such a policy. It is to maintain an international military deployment that will permit the U.S. to destroy at will hostile individuals, communities and, if necessary, sources of state power in the Islamic world. It is to prevent to the extent possible all nuclear proliferation.

I have probably missed something here. But this suggests to me a potential war policy of unlimited duration and dimensions.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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