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FEULNER: Focus on foreign policy

Candidates need to tell voters how they will keep America safe

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When the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore were held in October 2000, the Sept. 11 attacks were less than a year away. Guess how many times "al Qaeda" or "Osama bin Laden" came up in those debates? Not once.

There was a single mention of "terrorism" in one of the debates, but it was made in passing. One word did stand out from those verbal jousts, but it had nothing to do with any threat from abroad. The word was "lockbox." Hard as it may be to imagine now, the candidates spent more time locking horns over what they planned to do to protect Social Security and Medicare than how they'd protect the American people from our enemies.

Now, there's certainly nothing wrong with covering important domestic issues. The economy, for example, frequently demands our attention and seldom more urgently than it does at this moment. And no one expects candidates to have a crystal ball. Even the best prepared among us can get blindsided by a crisis.

But crises rarely materialize out of nowhere. The signs of a gathering storm can be detected if one is paying attention.

The Sept. 11 attacks, for example, surprised us, but they were hardly a bolt out of the blue. "In August 1998, Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan-based terrorist network bombed U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania," Middle East expert James Phillips wrote in a paper published by the Heritage Foundation in July 2000. "Yet Afghanistan has still not received the high-level attention that it deserves as the world's leading exporter of terrorism, Islamic revolution, and opium."

We had also seen the USS Cole bombed while it lay in port in Yemen. And let's not forget the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

Mr. Phillips and other experts had been sounding the alarm repeatedly by the time the 2000 election came around. Yet no debate moderator asked Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore what steps they would take, if elected, to help diffuse this threat.

It's easy to forget sometimes that the president is also the commander in chief. Maybe it's human nature to want to forget. After all, who wants to dwell on the fact that it's dangerous out there, especially when we have enough problems at home?

But when you consider our position in the world, and what it takes to make sure that we remain secure, we see the need to be prepared - not just in a general sense, but to anticipate specific threats and figure out how to deal with them.

That's why it was heartening to see the last debate between the Republican candidates focus on foreign policy. It's crucial that we hear, for example, what they would do to ensure that Iran doesn't wind up armed with nuclear weapons. Or how they would handle trade with China. Or what they would do to help bring peace to the Middle East. Or how they'd respond to religious persecution. Or what they think about foreign aid. And so on.

Fortunately, we haven't heard the last word from the candidates on these and other related topics. Heritage, with the American Enterprise Institute and CNN, will be sponsoring a debate on foreign policy and national security that will take place in Washington on Nov. 22 at 8 p.m. EST.

The timing couldn't be better. We're setting the Thanksgiving table, so to speak, for some lively family discussions. We should welcome such talks - how we approach these issues has a direct bearing on the future of our country.

As President Reagan once said, "The task that has fallen to us as Americans is to move the conscience of the world, to keep alive the hope and dream of freedom." But it won't happen automatically. It takes action. So let the debate begin.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (

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