U.S. Presidential Debate: Round One

World Opinion: Debate Gives Edge to Kerry

Palestinian children dressed as suicide bombers

John Kerry (L) and U.S. President Bush (R) debate on September 30, 2004. (Photos: Steve Jaffe (L) Roberto Schmidt (R) AFP-Getty Images)

Kerry impressed a world audience with a strong performance in the first presidential debate and many foreign observers now believe that the senator has a chance to overtake President Bush.

Calling the debate the “ultimate form of reality TV,” Patrick Sabatier, in the French daily Liberation, suggested that “…ninety minutes could decide the fate of American democracy and, by extension, the world's.”

Italy's La Repubblica stressed the importance of it being held in Florida, witness four years ago to “one of the most shameful episodes in American history.” Thanks to this important event, the “60 million voters who tuned in could see for themselves, free of the fog of electoral spots, the demarcation line between…two ways of conceiving the world and the role that the richest and most powerful nation should play in it.”

As an editorial writer for The Scotsman saw it, Bush’s credibility, rather than Kerry's consistency, became the issue. “[I]n the context of a 90-minute debate, the Bush campaign’s criticism of Mr. Kerry as a serial flip-flopper was less than entirely persuasive. Instead it was Mr. Bush who was forced to defend his record against charges that he had misled the United States people and made them less secure.”

The UK's Financial Times regarded the debate as more of a draw. “There was no single moment which sealed the debate for one man,” wrote FT correspondent James Harding on the paper's Web site. The Guardian, however, insisted there was: “…the president said of September 11: ‘The enemy attacked us,’ and Mr. Kerry retorted, though not quite as smartly as he might have, ‘Saddam Hussein didn't attack us’ - still as succinct an encapsulation of this sorry story as any copywriter could dream up.”

John Kerry seems to have won more support in Europe with his commitment to repair global alliances left "in shatters."

“He wants to put an end to the arrogance and insults, to give America real allies and to reduce the level of hostility,” commented Alain Campiotti in the Swiss daily, Le Temps. “He wants to restore a multilateral legitimacy to Washington’s foreign policy.”

Other comments made it clear that, if Kerry wants to win over foreign leaders, he will have to produce a plan for Iraq that differs in some significant way from Bush's.

“Kerry strikes a chord in a Europe openly critical of the adventure in Iraq, above all when he stated that Bush has left the transatlantic alliance in ruins,” observed Spain's leading daily El Pais. “But the televised duel was for internal consumption and the democratic challenger left us in the dark on key questions like his strategy for recruiting allies and his handling of the conflict, if he is elected next month. Or his formula for exiting, sooner or later, the hell of Iraq.”

The American investigative reporter, Seymour Hersch, predicted more of the same in Iraq if Bush is re-elected, only worse. There will be “more violence, more bombing, an unbelievable number of casualties,” because Bush will have no choice but to escalate, Hersch told Germany's weekly Die Zeit.

According to Hersch, the resulting pressure would reveal the crisis in America's armed forces: “The special forces are worn out. Three hundred men leave the Marines and Navy Seals for every one who signs up. There are hardly any reservists left,” he said. 

Hersch believes the U.S. will ultimately have to rely on a “Shake-and-Bake Army,” of inexperienced recruits mixed with a few veterans hanging on for their 20-year pension. When the draft is re-introduced, Americans will, at last, “see through” Bush. “Maybe we need this 'awakening'”, said Hersch, “to finally grasp the sheer madness of it all.”

There seemed to be a consensus among Middle East observers that in the end, the debate — and the election itself — would mean little to the Middle East.

“They barely mentioned Israel,” commented the Jerusalem Post. “But when they did…U.S. President George W. Bush and Senator John Kerry both used the platform to assert that success in Iraq is necessary for Israel's security.”

An op-ed writer in Pakistan's daily Dawn reflected views widely held by Muslims when he wrote: “No one talks of how and when the illegal occupation of Iraq and its resources will be ended. If there was some expectation that the Democratic challenger to President George Bush, John Kerry, would suggest a way out, that has been belied, particularly in the first of the debates between the two contenders…Blindness in equal measure also underlies the refusal to see a link between, on one hand, the war on terror, the alienation of the Muslim world, the turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel, on the other.”

In Asia, analysts noted that both Kerry and Bush were taking a tough stance and would adamantly demand that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program.

“For a presidential candidate, however, to openly say to the American people that North Korea possessed nuclear weapons changes the dimension of the issue,” editorialized Chosun Ilbo. “This confirms that the North Korean nuclear issue has become a core issue of the U.S. presidential election. It is predicted that after the election, North Korea would become a major target of U.S. foreign policy after Iraq.”

Aside from North Korea, the Kerry-Bush debate had strikingly little to say about “Asia, the world's most populous and economically most dynamic region,” complained The Straits Times. “The increasing challenges to American economic power from China, the European Union, Japan, and even India? Totally overlooked. It may be too much to hope but Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry should not miss the opportunity to define how each man's presidency would handle urgent problems facing the world and spur economic growth at a time of deepening anxiety.”

Two points stood out for Australia in the debate, at least according to The Australian : “The first is that Kerry, like Bush, highly esteems the contribution in Iraq of allies such as Britain and Australia. This makes nonsense of the idea that Australia's contribution carries credit only with the Bush Republican administration. Secondly, Kerry strongly endorsed the principle of preemption…. But preemption has become something of a theological debate in Australia. Kerry's embrace of it shows that merely electing him president will not solve the problems of those who don't like the U.S., and don't like its foreign policy.”

Bush’s post-debate accusations against John Kerry inspired more than a few criticisms in the world press.

“It is a measure of the contempt with which Bush treats the rest of the world that he has seized a remark by Kerry, on the need for a global perspective for war, as his post-debate campaign theme. (America will not take orders, etc.),” wrote M.J. Akbar in India’s Asian Age newspaper.

“Mr. Bush's flippancy and detachment from reality would have cut little ice with many in the international audience,” commented the New Zealand Herald. “But international viewers do not have a vote. Those of Middle America do, and the President was undoubtedly telling them what they wanted to believe about their own country, and about a happy ending in Iraq.”