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U.S.: Presidential Candidates Mostly Agree On Foreign Policy

The first debate between American presidential candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore highlighted hostility between the two men. But a week later -- on Wednesday night -- Bush and Gore had the second of their three planned debates. And -- at least on foreign policy -- their positions were very similar. In fact, even when they disagreed, their demeanor was much more congenial than during the first debate.

Washington, 12 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The two leading candidates for the U.S. presidency held the second of three debates Wednesday night. But their exchange on foreign policy seemed more like an exercise in mutual admiration.

To be sure, George W. Bush and Al Gore differed markedly on domestic policy. But Bush -- the governor of the state of Texas -- praised most of the overseas initiatives of President Bill Clinton, whom Gore serves as vice president. And Gore as often said he agreed with points that Bush made.

The two candidates -- Bush, of the Republican Party, and Gore, of the Democratic Party -- began the internationally televised debate with differing, but not opposing, outlines of how they would approach foreign policy if elected president.

Bush said he would focus primarily on America's self-interest.

"What's in the best interests of the United States? What's in the best interests of our people? When it comes to foreign policy, that'll be my guiding question."

Responding to the same question, Gore sought to portray the U.S. as an example that others would want to emulate.

"Freedom. Free markets. Political freedom. So I think first and foremost, our power ought to be wielded to -- in ways that form a more perfect union. The power of example is America's greatest power in the world."

The two candidates spent the fully the first half of the 90-minute debate discussing foreign policy. When the questions on the topic became more specific, they differed little.

For instance, they were asked whether they believed Slobodan Milosevic would have been defeated in last month's presidential election in Yugoslavia if the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had not bombed his country. Both men said the NATO bombing was necessary to weaken the Socialist government. And Bush made a point of praising Clinton's leadership in the campaign against Milosevic.

"I don't think he [Milosevic] would have fallen had we not used force. And I know there's some in my party that disagreed with that sentiment, but I supported the president. And I thought he made the right decision to do so."

Bush and Gore also were asked about the currently simmering Middle East -- and whether Iraqi President Saddam Hussein might be emboldened by the troubles in Israel to cause trouble elsewhere in the region. The two candidates answered the question almost identically.

Bush said: "We don't know whether he's [Saddam] developing weapons of mass destruction. He better not be, or there's going to be a consequence should I be the president."

Gore said: "I think that we also have to keep a weather eye toward Saddam Hussein, because he's taking advantage of this situation to once again make threats, and he needs to understand that he's not only dealing with Israel, he -- he is dealing -- he's dealing with us, if he -- if he is making the kind of threats that he's talking about there."

There was one area of disagreement between the two presidential rivals. And it reflects what each man calls his basic approach to governance.

Gore has sought votes by promising to spend America's unprecedented Treasury surplus on more generous government programs to help the country's citizens. Bush has countered that he would use the surplus to reduce taxes dramatically -- and let each American decide how he would spend this savings. The two men extended these differing approaches to foreign policy.

Gore said he recognizes America's role as the world's most powerful nation. He defended the use of the U.S. military in Haiti and Somalia for what is known as "nation building." He claimed this is helping a fledgling democracy set up the legal, political, and financial institutions necessary for it to prosper.

"The world is changing so rapidly, the way I see it, the world's getting much closer together. Like it or not, we are now -- the United States is now the natural leader of the world."

Bush said he felt it was more important for America to serve as an example, not a meddler.

"I just don't think it's the role of the United States to walk into a country, say, 'We do it this way; so should you.' I think we can help. And I know we've got to encourage democracy and the marketplaces."

Once they moved from foreign policy to domestic topics, Bush and Gore had much more on which to disagree. They differed on tax reduction, education policy, and government aid to health care.

But their differences were far more muted than during the first debate on October 3. During that exchange, the candidates stood at separate podiums situated about 15 feet apart. Throughout the event, Gore expressed exaggerated incredulity when Bush said something with which he disagreed. Likewise, Bush often pursed his lips testily and grimaced while Gore was speaking.

But Wednesday's night's debate was far less hostile. The two men were seated about three feet apart at a table, and the mood during most of the debate was affable. In fact, two or three times, the moderator felt compelled to ask the men to tell voters how they differed on a given issue.

The third and final debate will be held next Tuesday in the midwestern state of St. Louis.