The First Bush-Kerry Debate

The first US Presidential Debate between incumbent US President George W. Bush, Jr and the challenger Senator John Kerry took place on Thursday Sep 30, 2004 at the Convention Center in the University of Miami, Coral Gables in Florida. The first of the three debates in always an important one, either candidate could make a serious gaffe or give a knockout punch that would not allow recovery in the less then five weeks left to the US Presidential election on the first Tuesday of Nov 2004. A record number of Americans (about 60 million) watched the debate and even though one quickie Gallup Poll of 600 viewers showed Kerry beating Bush 53% to 37%, more deliberate poll results will not be available for 48 hours yet. Watching from Pakistan, one came away with the impression that though neither was a clear winner Kerry gained stature by looking Presidential while Bush did not give any way on his home turf of “war on terrorism”, the adverse facts on the ground should have put him under pressure on Iraq and Afghanistan. Where Bush lost ground was that after 45 minutes he seemed to get testy and irritated. This gave an adverse media perception to viewers. On the immediate available evidence Kerry may have gained enough ground to give his campaign a fresh start, he stopped the inevitability of a Bush victory by coming across as a credible contender. The next two debates therefore become that much more important for both, it has now become a more of a dog fight. The advantage will shift slightly to John Kerry as the subject of the first debate “Foreign Policy and Security” is President Bush’s strong suit, on domestic issues the Democratic contender is far more credible and coherent, particularly given his 20 years in the Senate.

It is always important to the rest of the world as to who heads the most powerful nation presently on earth. Russian President Vladimir Putin has more or less publicly endorsed George Bush, there can be no doubt about who the British PM Tony Blair is rooting for, the differing ideologies between a right leaning Republican and a left leaning Labour Party policies notwithstanding. For the most part, the Europeans (Italy’s Berlusconi and the former East European States excluded) are mostly cheering for John Kerry. As regards the muslim world, the streets hate Bush with violent passion but most governments, particularly monarchies, could prefer him over John Kerry. Asians and Africans are mostly ambivalent on the issue, rooting for Bush or Kerry alternatively.

While it would be too much to state that Pakistan’s existence would be threatened with a Kerry victory, it is taken for granted in Pakistan that the country usually suffers more at the hands of Democrats as compared to Republicans. While the Democrats in USA are more enamoured with India historically, it is also a matter of coincidence that every time the US needs a cornerstone of their policy in the region, The US President is Republican e.g. Eisenhower, Nixon, Reagan, Bush Sr. However Democrat Lyndon Baines Johnson remained a friend of Pakistan throughout and Clinton was more even-handed than others in their dealings with us vis-a-vis India. After 9/11 the geo-political situation and policy responses thereof has changed dramatically and a Republican President needs a strong ally in the region in Pakistan as a staging area for Afghanistan in the US’s “war on terrorism”. The US logistics would have been about impossible if Pakistan had balked at becoming a partner of the US against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. While Pakistan would have certainly been at the receiving end of US anger, delivered mostly by carpet-bombing to make us into a parking lot, it would have delayed the US war on Afghanistan and could have put the whole region in turmoil. The fact that Pakistan under Musharraf did a 180 degree turn facilitated the US-led coalition to oust the Taliban quickly from power and deny Al-Qaeda the safe-haven of a sovereign State. It also allowed the US to set about making Afghanistan as per their image of what an Central Asian country should look like.

The Pakistani man-in-the-street or for that matter the intelligentsia, follows the pattern of the general muslim opinion about Bush, they don’t like him, period. This feeling is fairly widespread, enough to cause Pakistan’s Musharraf anxious moments domestically as he is labeled an “American Stooge”. While US policy does not drastically change with change of regime, there is always a slight tilt against Pakistan whenever the Democrats are in charge. On the other hand because of 9/11 the Bush Administration, as opposed to its National Security Strategy unveiled a few months earlier in January 2001, has made Pakistan a “non-NATO military ally” despite our many shortcomings. Gen Pervez Musharraf has had very decisive support from the present US Govt, even on the issue of wearing of uniform as COAS while being President the US has come down on the side of Gen Musharraf, “a complex issue” to quote Secretary of State Colin Powell. There is broad consensus in the US on this, some Democrats have even gone so far as to suggest that Pakistan’s nuclear facilities would be taken out by air strikes and commando raids if Musharraf is removed from power. While this may not endear Pervez Musharraf to the general public, he does remain a popular muslim persona in the western world. For Pakistan, and for Pervez Musharraf personally, it is vital that Bush retains the US Presidency. That may be an unfortunate fact of life but it is a hometruth, we cannot divorce ourselves from reality. As such while the Pakistani hearts may be wishing that John Kerry will be elected President, cool and calm minds are quite clear that we need George W. Bush Jr. to remain in the White House. For us Pakistanis it is a case of dating John Kerry but marrying George Bush.