Debate points to refreshed post-Bush America

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Washington PostSaturday's presidential debate was fascinating to assess. Both candidates presented themselves with vigour, dignity and clarity, without resorting to gaffes, cheap jibes or innuendoes.

Although this first of three debates focused on foreign policy, the financial crisis dominated its first half. Obama focused on the realities in Main Street, with messages about the need for the state to provide universal basic health insurance and to create new industrial jobs by seriously restructuring for renewable energy. McCain added a plug for nuclear energy.

A debate over business taxes and tax breaks was eye-glazingly inconclusive. A more lively foreign policy debate centred on national security: the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and how to deal with Pakistan, Iran and Russia.

Concerned not to sound weak or indecisive, Obama came across as more soldierly than McCain on America's current wars. He labelled Iraq as a disaster, a damaging diversion from the priority of destroying Al Qaeda. McCain claimed that as a result of his favoured troop surge strategy in Iraq, this war was now going well.

Obama's powerful wrap-up stated that no US soldier ever died in vain who died obeying the lawful commands of his commander-in-chief the president, but that the latter's obligation was to take responsible decisions about when to take the country into war. This moment was a window into the pain of 4000 US soldiers dead in Iraq, a war whose human burden is being borne by poor American families.

Policy differences were pronounced on the issue of pursuing Taliban into Pakistan sanctuaries, a strategy Obama favours but of which McCain emphasised prudence. McCain showcased his foreign policy experience and sought to portray Obama as rash and inexperienced.

On Iran, both men affirmed resolute commitment to Israel and contempt for Ahmadinejad's offensive anti-Israel threats. McCain baited Obama on earlier pledges to try to begin a dialogue with Ahmadinejad. In a tedious debate on negotiating tactics, both candidates bizarrely invoked Henry Kissinger as their guide.

Both men's tone on Russia was tough: though rejecting the idea of a new cold war, they spoke of how the conflict with Georgia showed a new, more threatening Russia. With surprising command of detail, McCain reeled off easily unfamiliar words like Saakashvili, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko. Obama did not rise to the bait.

Though both aimed for a presumed US moderate centre, there was a perceptible difference in world view. In old-fashioned language, McCain proposed a league of Western democracies (naming Britain, France and Germany) to mount effective sanctions against Iran. Obama reminded that the large new world beyond the Western democracies, e.g. China and India, must be convinced for any such plan to work.

This segued into Obama's theme, regarding the need to restore American international standing after eight damaging Bush years. He neatly inserted a reference to his Kenyan father's admiration for the US, killing several birds with one stone.

A high point for McCain was his passionate, unprompted denunciation of US torture — 'it must never happen again' — and Guantanamo.

It was a typically US-centred debate. Neither candidate mentioned the United Nations or Kyoto. But environmentalists can take comfort from Obama's firm pledge to move fast towards renewables-based energy.

Age was not mentioned as an issue, except jokingly by McCain himself. Yet McCain's leitmotif was his experience and wisdom versus Obama's inexperience and naivete. If Obama can match McCain's command of foreign policy detail, he was not showing it off.

McCain, 72, looked an alert 60. Obama, 47 and a lithe six-foot basketballer, seemed to make himself older, more substantial. On radio and television, both candidates displayed equal gravitas, though Obama's radio voice was more resonant.

Both men came across honourably, with just the right note of steel to befit a US presidential candidate. Obama was tough, tougher than I remember Kerry or Gore being. There was a refreshing absence of anything like the calculated previous Republican-scripted innuendoes against Kerry and Gore.

Early polls of public reaction are mixed. American voters — many already committed — will take from the debate what they are looking for. In the end it is the impressions, not the words, which count most. I lean towards the cool victory claim of Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod:

'Only one candidate was presenting a vigorous case for change and standing up for real America. That was Barack Obama. McCain is mistaking his long resume for evidence of wisdom and judgement.'

Obama will have pleased younger Americans for his greater empathy with their concerns, McCain older voters for his dignified reaffirmation of traditional American values. After Bush, that's refreshing.

The debate, well moderated by Jim Lehrer, was a compliment to American democracy. But we can anticipate harsher tones in subsequent debates and in the vice-presidential debate.

Debate Transcript

Tony KevinTony Kevin retired from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1998, after a 30-year public service career in DFAT and Prime Minister's Department.

Topic tags: tony kevin, us election, presidential debate, barrack obama, john mccain



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'Obama's powerful wrap-up' as Tony likes to describe it sounds more like a load of pompous clap-trap. 'No US soldier ever died in vain who died obeying the lawful commands of his commander-in-chief, the president..' Obama can try telling that one DIRECTLY to the Marines.

The Iraq war has been denounced even by those politicians who supported it in the first place. They all now agree that there were no WMD's or Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq before 9/11 etc etc. Does this then mean that 'the president's obligation' to make a take a 'responsible decision' about taking the US into the Irag war was catastrophically unfullfilled? The answer of course is a resounding YES.

In 1692 a couple of years after William of Orange came to the English throne, the Catholic Highland clan leader, Alisdair Macdonald of Glencoe failed in making his oath of allegiance on time to the new Protestant king. When the British soldiers (mainly Campbells) were ordered to massacre the Macdonalds because of this two of the British officers refused to join the massacre, broke their swords and resigned their commissions.

The decision to wage war on Iraq by the Bush regime was as malevolent as the 'slaughter under trust' of those innocent Highlanders, and any US soldier who refuses to be a party to it would be truly justified.
Claude Rigney | 29 September 2008


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