Presidential debate: Middle East pays little attention; Chinese listen closely

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012 5:48 p.m. CDT

BERLIN - The presidential candidates talked about the U.S. as the world's last superpower in their final debate, but on Tuesday the reaction in the Middle East suggested a different role for America: something of an afterthought.

President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney argued about Iran's nuclear program, their support for Israel and the American relationship with Egypt and Libya. But many citizens in those countries remained far more focused on the hefty issues that they will still be confronting no matter who occupies the White House in January.

In Egypt, attention Tuesday was on a court decision regarding the fate of its legislature, which was dissolved over the summer. Libyan leaders continued to squabble over the basics of their government even as a military assault on a rebellious town stretched into its second week. In Iran and Israel, there was little talk of a debate that spoke only glancingly of Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and deemphasized differences between Obama and Romney on stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Overall, analysts said, though Obama and Romney may disagree on their approach to arming rebels in Syria, or dealing with political Islamists - differences that were not discussed at their Monday night debate - America's basic policy goals are not likely to change any time soon.

"Many Arabs have given up hope on the U.S. fundamentally changing its foreign policy in the region," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. "The U.S. is seen as less important to the region's fortunes."

In Egypt in particular - where Romney listed "a Muslim Brotherhood president," Egypt's first democratically-elected leader Mohammed Morsi, as among the factors in "a pretty dramatic reversal in the kind of hopes we had for that region," discussion of the debate was minimal. Instead, attention on Tuesday focused on more practical issues - such as whether or not the country has a working legislature. A Cairo court kicked the decision up to the country's top judges, who will decide within 45 days.

And in both Israel and Iran, there was also little focus on the election. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Tuesday to keep building homes in an area of Jerusalem that once belonged to the West Bank, another setback in international efforts to bring Palestinians and Israelis to the negotiating table. Iran's state-run Fars News Agency focused meanwhile on new U.S. voter ID laws that may make it more difficult to vote.

In the debate, there was not a word on other major foreign policy topics confronting the United States - climate change and the euro crisis among them.

But there was discussion near the end about the U.S. relationship with China. Obama called China "both an adversary but also a potential partner." Romney promised that "on day one, I will label them a currency manipulator."

Most Chinese Internet users seemed unconcerned about the candidates' tough talk. Instead, they viewed the debate process with admiration, as a kind of democratic theater. They commented mostly on the candidates' intelligence, their skills at presenting their arguments, and who made the most jokes.

Many said they wished such a show could one day happen here in authoritarian China. The country's Communist Party is preparing for its own leadership transition a few days after the U.S. election, but there will be no debates and no public participation - the people will find out who their new rulers are when the lineup is unveiled to them after a secret meeting of Party elites behind closed doors.

"Although mainland China is a one-party state, competitive elections and political shows should still be adopted," wrote an Internet commenter using the name Guliyeweiqi. "But that's almost a luxurious dream."

In China, media commentaries seemed unfazed by the tough rhetoric spouted by the candidates. "Willing or not, Democratic or Republican, the next U.S. president shall have to tone down his get-tough-on-China rhetoric made along the campaign trail, and deal with his country's sclerotic ineptness toward China's inevitable rise," said a commentary that ran on Xinhua, the state-run news agency, immediately after the debate.

The commentary called trade disputes "speed bumps" thrown in the way of China's advancement, and said "a contagion of China-phobia syndrome" was spreading across the United States.

The debate drew a wide online audience, where it was live-streamed starting at the relatively convenient time of 9 a.m. Most of the mainstream media outlets devoted special reports to the last face-off of this presidential campaign.

Chinese have been intensely following the American election, paying far closer attention than they did in 2008, mostly because of the explosive growth of the Internet here and the Twitter-like microblogging site called "weibo."

One hour after the debate, the name Obama was the seventh-most searched term on weibo, with "U.S. presidential election" being the 10th-most searched term.

In mostly pro-Obama Europe, a continent whose name was uttered only once in the debate, some commentators saw the lack of focus on their part of the world as a victory. Romney has been using Europe's economic problems as an attack line against Obama on the campaign trail.

It "is a good sign" for the European Union that it didn't come up, since "Republicans have been using countries like Greece and Spain as a exhibits of failed states," wrote the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

But with many people in Europe surprised at the possibility that Romney might win, some saw the challenger in a new light after the three debates this month, even if they called Monday's event for Obama.

"Romney seemed as though he were already Commander-in-Chief," wrote the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, "while Obama, his opponent, violently attacked him, sometimes patronizingly."

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