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Presidential debates are not meant to be in-depth or analytical exchanges. The candidates are unlikely to reveal new information or venture into unexplored and risky territory. Neither are they encouraged to make bold and original comments. However, as safe and familiar scenarios, carefully polished and tested out by campaign strategists, are dished out to national audiences of these debates, a small doze of reality could be refreshing. The first presidential debate left much to be desired with regard to the candidate’s vision of a foreign policy informed, realistic, and able to deal with changing global conditions.
I am not referring to the fact that Senator McCain would still perpetuate the myth of a world so dangerous it cannot be handled in anyway other than being crashed with military might. We are by now used to the fact that he presents the Iraq war as if a military victory (if it were possible) would justify everything including the faulty intelligence which started war, namely the Iraqi connection with al-Qaeda and the WMDs. Naturally, it is not surprising that in the debate he attributed the recent reduction of violence solely to the troop surge which he supports and ignored completely the 70% or more Iraqi’s who view the U.S. army as occupiers and wish to see us leave immediately.
As an American with multi-cultural background, a person who travels and finds the opportunity to view world politics from a variety of national lenses, one of the saddest parts in the debate was the two candidates’ disregard for other nations’ well-being (almost as an indication of their patriotism.) Senator Obama, for example, was quick to mention the Iraqi surplus and the responsibility of the country to manage its own affairs. But while citing the calamities of the war, he would only refer to the over 4,000 American causalities and not as much as hint at the few hundred thousand Iraqis dead and millions displaced. It was almost as if such a reference would have made him less American in our eyes. Are we, despite being a superpower, so small that our patriotism would be marred unless it is totally self-centered? I tend to think not.
The biggest fiasco of the evening, however, was Senator McCain’s total and patriotic opposition to unconditional negotiations with Iran. He is, of course, entitled to his views and proposed policies. Neither am I naïve enough to expect Senator Obama to intervene on behalf of Iran and say something totally unpatriotic such as “Iran is a large, diverse, and young country. Wouldn’t it be wise to think about turning it into an asset for America in the region?” He would certainly be committing political suicide if he went a step further and cited facts such as “We would have not won our initial war with the Taliban if it were not for Iran’s help through its connections with the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan” or, “Iran is the only country in the region in which al-Qaida does not have a safe haven.”
But when Mr. McCain made fun of his opponent, lampooning his way through an imaginary scenario in which diplomatic contact between the U.S. and Iran was reduced to a silly exchange between the two presidents during which the evil one proclaimed “I want to wipe Israel off the map!” and the good (but weak) one endorsed the evil deed with his presence, he should not have got away with it. Senator Obama didn’t have to do anything risky such as explaining that foreign policy of a nation requires a more solid base than a mistranslated sentence. Neither did he have to point out that Israel is not an ink blot to be wiped off a piece of paper. It is a country equipped to defend itself (not to mention that her Western friends could do things to Iran that would make the Iraqi casualty figure look modest). As fun as it would have been, no one could expect him to suggest that Mr. McCain better stop using Israel as a step in his political dance to the next war.
But Mr. Obama could have done something really cool. He could have pulled out a shocker, a piece of news no one seems to have had access to so far. “John,” he could have said “I have news for you! No American president would be able to negotiate with Mr. Ahmadinejad, no matter how much he would like to. The guy’s term in office is coming to an end in May … and his popularity beats that of Mr. Bush.”
That might have made Mr. McCain turn around and look at him.
FATEMEH KESHAVARZ is Chair of the Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages and Literature at Washington University and the author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading more than Lolita in Tehran.