Perhaps it's unrealistic to expect a U.S. presidential debate to deal substantively - and honestly - with wrongful actions by the American government, even at the end of George W. Bush's eight-year reign as one of the planet's preeminent rogue operatives.
The acceptable political parameters may allow some tactical disagreements (Barack Obama saying the Iraq War "took our eye off the ball") or even some implied moral criticism (John McCain saying he opposed Bush "on torture of prisoners").
But there's no place for a serious discussion of wholesale U.S. war crimes, such as Bush's decision to launch an aggressive war under false pretenses, the sort of offense that the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II called the "supreme" international crime.
In a healthy democracy, moderator Jim Lehrer might have been expected to ask Obama and McCain whether President Bush should be shipped off to The Hague for a trial as a war criminal or whether he should be put before American courts to face serious criminal charges, such as violation of anti-torture statutes.
There might be a question, too, about hypocrisy: how can Obama and McCain so righteously condemn Russia for its alleged aggression against Georgia (after Georgia attacked the pro-Russian province of South Ossetia) when the United States has asserted its right not only to invade Iraq (under Bush) but to attack Yugoslavia when it was throttling a separatist movement in Kosovo (as Bill Clinton did)?
Granted, endless double standards have become part of the American political landscape. Many journalists and politicians have avoided criticizing the illegality or immorality of U.S. foreign interventions since 1984 when U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick famously chastised anyone who would "blame America first."
Since then, questions about American misconduct had to be muted for fear that any criticism would be labeled unpatriotic or disloyal. Mainstream journalists and politicians learned to couch their concerns about U.S. foreign policy as questions about tactics or effectiveness.
Arguably, however, that timidity has contributed to the frequency, brutality and criminality of U.S. military actions. It is hard to explain the Iraq War, for instance, without observing that Bush and his neoconservative advisers were confident they could roll both Congress and the Washington press corps.
Knowing that few people of conscience would dare stand in the way, Bush and the neocons sold the war based on false allegations about WMD and a historically unprecedented claim that the United States had the right to intervene preemptively anywhere in the world if it could foresee some possible future threat to its security.
This so-called Bush Doctrine meant that the United States and its political leadership had stepped beyond the reach of international law. Even as President Bush railed about the need to eliminate "rogue" regimes, he was turning the U.S. into the ultimate "rogue" state.
(Interestingly, ABC News anchor Charles Gibson did ask Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin about the Bush Doctrine in the Republican vice presidential nominee's first prime-time debate, and she flubbed the answer, seeming not to know that the Bush Doctrine was.)
For Lehrer's part, however, this stunning doctrine was never mentioned in the debate between the two politicians seeking to succeed President Bush. Only implicitly was it clear that McCain supported the notion of intervening aggressively abroad and that Obama was somewhat less eager to send troops on overseas missions.
Though a constitutional law scholar, Obama avoided posing either a moral or legal argument against Bush-style interventionism. Instead, he posited his opposition to the Iraq War on practical grounds.
"Six years ago, I stood up and opposed this war," Obama said, "because I said that not only did we not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world and whether our intelligence was sound but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan.
"We hadn't caught bin Laden. We hadn't put Al Qaeda to rest. And as a consequence, I thought that it was going to be a distraction."
Obama also cited the war's extraordinary cost to the U.S. Treasury (over $600 billion and sure to pass $1 trillion), the blood shed by American soldiers (more than 4,000 dead and 30,000 wounded), and the fact that "Al Qaeda is resurgent" in secure base camps along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Obama concluded that "we did not use our military wisely in Iraq."
While there can be little doubt about the accuracy of his points, Obama dodged the larger question of whether the Bush Doctrine was illegal and immoral, nor did he mention the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and the unnecessary invasion that turned their country into a living hell.
If Obama had ventured into that territory, he surely would have invited accusations that he was "blaming America first." Or if he had compared Russian actions in South Ossetia to NATO's intervention to protect Kosovo, he would have faced charges of "moral equivalence," a favorite neocon attack line that essentially argues that the United States cannot be held to the same standards as other nations.
So Obama retreated behind a defensive line of what's practical and what's not.
That opened Obama to McCain's own practical arguments, that whatever the initial mistakes in Iraq, the real question now is what can be done.
"The next President of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not," McCain said. "The next President of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind."
McCain mocked Obama's proposal for a withdrawal timetable and insisted that victory was the only acceptable outcome.
Faced with McCain's flurry of attacks, Obama didn't even respond by noting that the Iraqi government has been insisting on a withdrawal time frame for American troops and that the White House has generally accepted that idea.
Indeed, the end result of all the U.S. sacrifice in blood and treasure in Iraq might well be the Iraqis saying "thanks, but no thanks" to a continued U.S. presence - or Washington laying bare its imperialist designs by staying regardless of what the Iraqis want.
Obama also chose not to reengage in a debate over whether McCain's "successful surge" argument is a reality or a myth. Over the past several months, Obama has been pummeled in interview after interview for not completely accepting the current conventional wisdom that the "surge" has worked and that McCain deserves credit.
For instance, on Sept. 7, ABC's "This Week" host George Stephanopoulos demanded of Obama: "How do you escape the logic that ... John McCain was right about the surge," dispatching an additional 30,000 combat troops to Iraq.
When Obama responded that he couldn't understand "why people are so focused on what has happened in the last year and a half and not on the previous five," Stephanopoulos cut him off, saying "Granted, you think you made the right decision about going in, but about the surge?"
Again, this was a case of a limited frame allowed by the major U.S. news media giving McCain a strong advantage. It is now widely accepted in Washington - despite evidence to the contrary - that the "surge" was the singular reason for the drop in Iraq's violence.
This conventional wisdom has prevailed even though it is challenged by military officials interviewed for Bob Woodward's new book, The War Within. Some of Woodward's sources saw the "surge" as more of a secondary factor.
As Woodward writes, "In Washington, conventional wisdom translated these events into a simple view: The surge had worked. But the full story was more complicated. At least three other factors were as important as, or even more important than, the surge."
Woodward, whose book draws heavily from Pentagon insiders, reported that the Sunni rejection of al-Qaeda extremists in Anbar province (which preceded the surge) and the surprise decision of radical Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr to order a unilateral cease-fire by his militia were two important factors.
A third factor, which Woodward argued may have been the most significant, was the use of new highly classified U.S. intelligence tactics that allowed for rapid targeting and killing of insurgent leaders. Woodward agreed to withhold details of these secret techniques from his book so as not to undercut their continuing success.
But there have been previous glimpses of classified U.S. programs that combine high-tech means of identifying insurgents - such as sophisticated biometrics and night-vision-equipped drones - with old-fashioned brutality on the ground, including on-the-spot executions of suspects. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com's "Bush's Global Dirty War" and "Iraq's Laboratory of Repression."]
As we've reported previously, other brutal factors - that the Washington press corps almost never mentions - help explain the decline in violence:
Vicious ethnic cleansing has succeeded in separating Sunnis and Shiites to such a degree that there are fewer targets to kill. Several million Iraqis are estimated to be refugees either in neighboring countries or within their own.
- Concrete walls built between Sunni and Shiite areas have made "death-squad" raids more difficult but also have "cantonized" much of Baghdad and other Iraqi cities, making everyday life for Iraqis even more exhausting as they seek food or travel to work.
- During the "surge," U.S. forces expanded a policy of rounding up so-called "military age males" and locking up tens of thousands in prison.
- Awesome U.S. firepower, concentrated on Iraqi insurgents and civilian bystanders for more than five years, has slaughtered countless thousands of Iraqis and has intimidated many others to look simply to their own survival.
- With the total Iraqi death toll estimated in the hundreds of thousands and many more Iraqis horribly maimed, the society has been deeply traumatized. As tyrants have learned throughout history, at some point violent repression does work.
But this dark side of the "successful surge" is excluded from the U.S. political debate, much like the illegality of Bush's original invasion.
That blindness to what might be the most important geopolitical question of this era - the presumed Bush Doctrine right of the United States to invade any country of its choosing - has now continued into the presidential debates.