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Archive for Saturday, July 26, 2008

Foreign policy demands campaign focus

July 26, 2008

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Whether Barack Obama's multi-nation, overseas tour amounts to a political stunt - as critics claim - or not, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president and U.S. senator from Illinois is moving in the right direction. So far, foreign-policy issues have played a pitifully small role in the campaign. To those who believe that discussing Afghanistan, Iraq and trade - as important as those subjects are - covers the necessary bases, think again.

By traveling to various countries, talking to political leaders, spending time with U.S. troops in the field, interacting with average people, and sharing substantive, proactive ideas about how to fix major problems that plague the world, Obama could make a meaningful contribution.

Indeed, such foreign exposure should play a prominent part in every serious U.S. presidential candidate's bid. Americans cannot escape their critical role or obligations in an increasingly shrinking, interdependent world; direct, shoes-on-the-ground experience helps illuminate those responsibilities.

The key, though, is the part about sharing substantive, proactive ideas about how to fix major problems that plague the world. Too often, U.S. presidential candidates package solutions to global challenges so carefully and tightly that they end up sounding like glorified slogans. In this year's election, Americans are looking for and deserve a good deal more than thin foreign-policy gruel. Of course, the issues should include Afghanistan, Iraq and trade, but also a number of other important matters.

For example, climate change has captured just about everyone's attention for its potential not only to encourage devastating weather and flooding, but to force unprecedented migration and expand political tensions. I am glad that both Obama and his Republican counterpart, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have declared their concern. But they need to move without haste to the next level.

I would like to see competing plans from the two candidates that outline ways for the United States to tackle and work toward correcting the climate-change problem within a few decades. While they are at it, they should demonstrate some fresh thinking about the inextricably linked question of America's energy future, especially how to end U.S. reliance on imported oil during the same period.

As a second example, what are the candidates prepared to do in the area of terrorism/counter-terrorism and homeland security? Will their policies shape up as more of the same? What is the nature of the threat that we face? How has it changed since Sept. 11, 2001? Are we ready for the next attack? Are we doing enough defensively and offensively? Given that the current wave of terrorism will plague us for decades to come, where are the candidates' 20-year plans to combat this scourge?

As a third example, what does the concept of human rights mean to the United States in the 21st century? More specifically, what steps should Americans take against one of the most egregious violations: human trafficking? Is it acceptable that we have a record number of people in forced servitude around the world?

If the candidates and their advisers find themselves hard-pressed to come up with original ideas, then they should take a look at recent publications on the topic, including "Ending Slavery: How We Free Today's Slaves," by Kevin Bales. There is no excuse, however, for the candidates to avoid making this issue a central one during the rest of the campaign, stating a commitment to end as much slavery as possible within a few decades and setting out a realistic strategy.

Now, some readers will likely tell me that my expectations soar too high, that the candidates will not deliver. That may be true. But time is short. Americans should not stand for failure on the part of Obama and McCain to produce, present and debate a sizable array of thoughtful foreign-policy prescriptions long before Election Day.

- John C. Bersia, who won a Pulitzer Prize in editorial writing for the Orlando Sentinel in 2000, is the special assistant to the president for global perspectives at the University of Central Florida.

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