Watching candidates debate foreign policy is like watching people play catch with Grandma's china. Yet that is what Americans will do Monday as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney meet in their final debate.
Here are the topics that must be addressed in Boca Raton, Fla.
Middle East. Relations with this region are critical to the United States on various fronts. Mr. Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, under the accord reached with the Iraqis by President George W. Bush. Both candidates are in rough agreement that the presence of U.S. forces in Afghanistan should end in 2014, although Mr. Romney's position on the end date is wobbly. Syria is in flames; Libya is close to chaos. Egypt is still finding its way back to order after its radical Arab Spring change of government.
America is embroiled in the Middle East for two reasons: its traditional ties to Israel and its continued dependence on oil imports. Both of these issues relate to a third, the pressure that America exerts on Iran to prevent it from developing a nuclear weapons capacity that would take away Israel's monopoly on that in the region. It is also the case, in terms of nuclear nonproliferation, that if Shia Muslim Iran obtains nuclear weapons, Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Egypt and Turkey might well develop them also, turning what is already a dangerous region into one that destroys prospects for world peace.
This subject is complex and not given to sound bites but nonetheless one that the next president will face from the beginning to the end of his term.
China. This country of 1.3 billion is in economic, political and military terms America's primary rival in the world, in spite of Mr. Romney's having termed Russia the nation's "number one geopolitical foe." U.S. relations with China are vital to the present and future well-being of Americans. The trading relationship is critical, with the economic health of each country dependent on the state of the other. America also owes China more than $1 trillion.
There are other subjects to consider, but these two should dominate the discussion. Americans should cross their fingers that the candidates understand them and resist the temptation to oversimplify their complexities.