The Book!

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Debates

I just finished watching the US presidential debate on foreign policy.

Contrary to my own expectations, Kerry won. This is not just my opinion: a snap poll says it was the conclusion of most viewers. Kerry sounded knowledgeable and bright. To me, his positions did not hold together, but Bush did not show this clearly.

This was the most important debate: more people watch this one that later ones. It was also supposed to be Bush's best shot: foreign policy. Although Kerry has also chosen to make foreign policy his centrepiece, so he might never have agreed with this assessment.

I think there is still a decent chance that some of Kerry's statements of "fact" on foreign policy will be uncovered as howlers. The next twenty-four hours or so will tell the tale. That could change perceptions: in previous debates, perceptions of who won or lost really did not become clear until about a week later.

But I saw no visible knockouts. I remember hearing Ford say Poland was not dominated by the Soviet Union and thinking "uh-oh" immediately. Or Benson's line "you're no Jack Kennedy." Nothing like that here. Bush did fine; Kerry seemed to have more information at his fingertips, that's all.

On the whole, I suppose this is good for Bush. Kerry had more at stake. Bush is sitting on a lead, and so anything close to a draw goes to him.

One thing that bugged me about Kerry's comments, that I would have liked Bush to go after him on, was the implicit racism of his attitude on foreign policy, and of many of his answers.

Kerry said several times that America was bearing 90% of the casualties in Iraq, to criticise Bush's supposedly unilateralist policies. Sitting there listening as a foreigner, it struck me that the subtext here was that it would be just fine to Kerry that people got killed, as long as they were foreigners. Great way to build a coalition of international partners, right?

But even then, his figure of 90% ignores all Iraqi deaths. Heck, if you're not of Western European ancestry, you're not even really alive in the first place, I guess.

Again, while he stressed the need for foreign deaths on the ground, he also criticised Bush for "outsourcing" the operation in Tora Bora--where they thought they once had Osama bin Laden surrounded--to Afghan troops. Instead of using "superior" American troops.

Another nice slap at allies. It suggests the Afghans (and Pakistanis) are not reliable, and not competent. And pretty chauvinistic, too, to blandly assume that the American troops could have handled mountain fighting better than the locals. Locals who knew the terrain, had been fighting in it for twenty years. Locals who managed to defeat the Soviet Union here only a few years ago. Great way to build an international coalition.

Again, he seemed contemptuous of the African Union over Darfur. Regardless of his claim otherwise to oppose unilateralism, he advocated piling American troops in there unilaterally, to "catalyse" the African Union. As though it was America's burden to show natives what to do.

When you stop to think of it, this may be the one thing on which Kerry has indeed been consistent throughout his career. After all, isn't this the essence of his entire position on Iraq and the Middle East? That it doesn't matter what happens to Iraqis or Afghans, only what happens to Americans?

And wasn't this his position on Vietnam as well? His opposition to the war was a question of getting Americans out, saving American lives and money. Never mattered what happened to the Vietnamese left behind.

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