Accessibility links

U.S. Presidential Debate Focuses On Foreign Policy

  • Andrew Tully

In the first U.S. presidential debate held between the two leading candidates, Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Republican Party nominee, and Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democrat, debated approaches to Iran, the war in Iraq, and the country's current financial crisis.

About the only thing McCain and Obama agreed on was that Russia's behavior in Georgia was unacceptable.

Asked to assess the current status of U.S.-Russian relations, Obama expressed concern about Moscow's intentions regarding its neighbors.

"Given what's happened over the last several weeks and months, our entire Russian approach has to be evaluated because a resurgent and very aggressive Russia is a threat to the peace and stability of the region. Their actions in Georgia were unacceptable," Obama said.

Obama accused the administration of President George W. Bush of misjudging Russia's leadership, and he dismissed Bush's statement in 2001, shortly after he met then-President Vladimir Putin, that he looked Putin in the eyes and found him trustworthy.

McCain also denounced the Russian invasion of Georgia, and criticized the kind of leadership that he said is epitomized by Putin, now the Russian prime minister, saying it's based on his years in the old Soviet KGB.

"Russia has now become a nation fueled by petrodollars that is basically a KGB apparatchik-run government. I looked into Mr. Putin's eyes and I saw three letters: a K, a G and a B. And their aggression in Georgia is not acceptable behavior," McCain said.

McCain said that after the Georgia conflict, the United States should carefully watch events in Ukraine. He pointed to the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, based in Sevastopol, and the political divisions in Kyiv between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Iran's Nuclear Program

The two candidates clashed markedly on Iran. Obama said the United States' first priority is to ensure that Iran doesn't acquire nuclear weapons. But he stressed that it will be difficult to impose even more UN sanctions against Tehran without the cooperation of Russia and China, which he said "are not democracies" and have broad commercial contacts with Iran.

Obama also called for serious contacts with Tehran, saying the United States should engage in "tough, direct diplomacy with Iran."

McCain responded by saying Obama has implied that he himself, if elected president, would sit down for talks with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, whom McCain accused of plotting to destroy Israel.

The two men were also asked about the war in Iraq, and what lessons the United States has learned since it began 5 1/2 years ago.

McCain said the Bush administration learned that it must use enough force to achieve success in a war. He reminded the audience that he was a leading supporter of the "surge" -- an increase of about 30,000 U.S. troops in Iraq that lasted about a year and ended three months ago.

"This strategy has succeeded and we are winning in Iraq. And we will come home with victory and with honor," McCain said.

Obama countered that while the surge had reduced violence in Iraq, the Iraqi government had not kept its part of the bargain by exploiting the lower level of fighting to work on reconciliation efforts among the country's rival sectarian factions.

According to rules established several weeks ago, the debate was supposed to have focused on foreign affairs. But the recent economic upheaval in the country has eclipsed other issues in the campaign, and one-third of the 90-minute session was devoted to a White House-backed proposal, currently being negotiated by Congress, to rescue Wall Street.