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Editorial: So who won the first debate?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-10-02

The main themes of Thursday's debate between President George W. Bush of the United States and his Democratic challenger, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts - the first of three such meetings before the election on November 2 - were supposed to be American foreign policy and homeland security. In the event, the 90-minute exchange turned out to be almost exclusively about Iraq, Afghanistan, terrorism and North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Asia, the world's most populated region - and its most economically advancing one - was ignored. The increasing challenges to American economic supremacy from China, the European Union, Japan, and even India? Totally overlooked. So was Latin America, one of America's biggest markets. Africa - with its growing AIDS pandemic - wasn't even mentioned, other than a passing reference to the genocide in the Darfur area of the Sudan. The increasing violence between Israelis and Palestinians? Nothing. Nothing, too, about the potentially harmful consequences of rising crude oil prices on world economies. President Bush and Senator Kerry both agreed that nuclear non-proliferation was a concern they shared. But what about specific solutions to crises such as the unravelling of Iraq and the continued activities of Islamic militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Nothing other than standard bromides like continued determined pursuit of terrorists.

Presidential debates, of course, are rarely about solutions. Nobody expected that either candidate would unveil some sort of dramatic plan to address the deteriorating security situation in conflict-ridden areas such as Iraq. These debates are intended to convey candidates' style, body language and "presidential look." In that regard, both men came through well, although there were moments when President Bush appeared testy when Mr Kerry drew attention to the chaotic American rebuilding of post-war Iraq and the growing number of American casualties there. Mr Bush made it clear, however, that he had little doubts about the primacy of American power in the post-Cold War era. The US saw it as an obligation to "spread liberty" around the world, the president said, adding, "I believe in the transformational power of liberty." Mr Kerry subscribed to this view, too, but stressed that, in a world of increasing globalisation, he saw the need for American foreign policymakers to develop stronger alliances with other countries.

Other than occasional digs at each other, neither candidate was particularly confrontational. But if Mr Kerry was hoping to inject new life into a candidacy that's been perceived as lackadaisical, then he certainly may have succeeded through his crisp answers and firm posture. Mr Bush, an accomplished debater - as he demonstrated in 2000 when he beat Vice President Al Gore - seemed ready with facts and figures on the foreign policy issues that the moderator, Mr Jim Lehrer, a noted US television personality, raised. It was a pity that his questions didn't range more widely across a world in which the foreign policy of the US - as the sole superpower in a unilateral world - affects the well-being of nearly every state of the 191-member United Nations. It was a pity, too, that the candidates failed to address the troubling question of the Third World's US$3 trillion debt to Western governments and financial institutions. Many world leaders would surely have expected some signals from the candidates about how to accelerate global economic growth. No such signals came.

So was there a "winner"? Initial polls gave Mr Kerry a formidable edge over President Bush in the debate. But the poll that will truly matter will be held a month from today (correct). Let's hope that the two remaining presidential debates - one, in a town hall format, and another one replicating Thursday's formal setting - will offer more by way of the candidates' insights into domestic US issues, the central themes of the debates. But by reciting platitudes and repeating previously stated positions on limited areas of the world, both Mr Bush and Mr Kerry missed an opportunity to sharply define how each man's presidency would handle other pressing problems such as alleviating global poverty and spurring economic growth at a time of deepening global anxieties.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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