Debates Viewed Warily in Mideast

Arab viewers, many suspicious of U.S. intentions in their region, watched the U.S. presidential debate with wariness — some dismissing it as a trivial "American show" and others expressing dismay that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (search) was nearly ignored.

While some viewers said Democrat John Kerry (search) appeared to best President Bush (search) in the debate itself, analysts suggested Friday that Bush still appeals to many in the Middle East — to governments looking for continuity, to reformers looking for pressure on their countries, and to militants who see Bush's policies spreading support for their anti-American rage.

Salama Ahmed Salama, an Egyptian newspaper columnist, said that in the end, the debate — and the election itself — would mean little to the Middle East.

"Neither this or that (candidate) will be in the benefit of the Arab world," he said. "Everyone has been tossing us around."

American presidential races were closely watched overseas with viewers from Asia to the Middle East and Europe listening closely to the issues that matter most to them. In Asia, viewers were concerned with U.S. policy toward North Korea and its possible nuclear arsenal.

In the Middle East viewers were looking for a president who is willing to tackle the region's conflicts from the war in Iraq to fighting between Israeli's and Palestinians.

The debate ran in the pre-dawn hours Friday in the Middle East. The region's most popular television news networks, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, broadcast live coverage of the debate. Al-Arabiya replayed the debate at midday Friday, a day off throughout the region.

But although the Iraq war and the battle with global terrorism took center stage in the 90-minute debate, many Arab commentators lamented that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was nearly ignored.

Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said ignoring the issue during the debate was an indication that both candidates view the conflict "through Sharon's eyes," sending the region further down the road of "chaos, extremism and darkness."

"I think they should focus not on siding with Israel, but on making the Middle East a more stable and peaceful place," Erekat said.

Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, said the candidates sidestepped the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because the U.S. view of the Middle East has changed since Sept. 11.

In Asia, analysts said that both Kerry and Bush were adamant that North Korea abandon its nuclear weapons program, pointing out that both were likely to take a tough stance.

"We don't see any big difference between the Republicans and Democrats when it comes to the United States' commitment to using all available resources to stop proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and fight terrorism," said Kim Sung-han, an analyst at South Korea's Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

"Whoever wins the election, the United States will get tough if North Korea drags its feet in resolving its nuclear problem," Kim said.

North Korea is suspected of delaying six-nation nuclear talks initiated by the Bush administration, hoping that it could get more concessions from Washington through bilateral negotiations with a Kerry administration.

"The debate shows that after the U.S. presidential election, North Korea will become a key target of U.S. foreign policy," a national daily, Chosun Ilbo, said in an editorial. "North Korea must realize that the fact that Kerry embraces bilateral talks with it doesn't mean that if elected, he will accept more North Korean demands."

The difference in approach between the candidates centers on the U.S. administration's view that involving other countries in talks with North Korea will bring more pressure to bear on the isolated country to abandon its nuclear capability. The talks involving North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan have so far yielded little progress.

In Europe, many people had to stay up past 4 a.m. to see the whole debate. In France and Germany, which opposed the Iraq war, Kerry's promise of a multilateral U.S. foreign policy was welcomed.

Germans could not help noticing that Kerry's stand on the Iraq war and his opposition to unilateral attacks is closer to Berlin's stance, Gernot Erler, a senior lawmaker with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats, told n-tv television.

In France, results of a pre-debate poll said nearly 90 percent of French favor Kerry, and one analyst said the reasons why are obvious.

"We are in a logic of 'Anything but Bush,"' Andre Kaspi, an expert on the United States at Paris' Sorbonne University, told the daily newspaper La Croix.

"There is no doubt that international support for the United States has fallen a lot in the last four years — in France particularly, but this is a global trend and it is also very strong in the Arab world."

During the debate, Kerry accused Bush of leaving U.S. alliances around the world "in shatters" and said that as president he would try to win more international support for the war.