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US Candidates for President Debate Torture, Public Diplomacy

Two Republican Party candidates for U.S. president disagreed sharply last week on the use a controversial interrogation technique known as waterboarding. While much of the campaign focuses on domestic issues, candidates also talk about Iraq and illegal immigration. The dispute over torture came in a debate in the southern U.S. state of Florida. VOA's Jim Fry updates us on prominent foreign policy issues of the past two weeks.

As Republican candidates for U.S. president campaign in states that will make their selections as early as next month, the foreign policy debate often has focused on illegal immigration.

Many conservative Republicans favor tougher security at the nation's southwestern border. Much of the disagreement involves whether illegal immigrants or their children should receive government services.

At their first debate in nearly two months, Republican candidates did argue over immigration. But in the Florida event, one of the sharpest exchanges involved an issue many say has hurt the U.S. international image -- torture.

A questioner asked whether the candidates would favor banning the interrogation technique known as waterboarding, which simulates drowning.

Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would not commit. He expresses his view, "I oppose torture. I would not be in favor of torture in any way, shape or form."

Question: "Is waterboarding torture?"

Romney: "As I just said, as a presidential candidate I don't think its wise for us to describe specifically which measures we would and would not use."

John McCain (once a prisoner of war in Vietnam): "Well governor, I'm astonished that you haven't found out what waterboarding is."

Romney: "I know what waterboarding is, senator."

McCain: "Then I'm astonished that you would think such a torture would be inflicted on anyone who we held captive and anyone could believe that that's not torture. We're not going to do what Pol Pot did. We're not going to do what's being done to Burmese monks as we speak

Questions turned to public diplomacy, a question that former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani answered.

Question: "What would you do as president to repair the image of America in the eyes of the Muslim world?"

Giuliani: "Well, the most important thing to do is to make certain we remain on offense against Islamic terrorism."

The Republican candidates focused on military strength and the Iraq war, rather than diplomacy.

McCain: "Well, I'd do a lot of things but the first and most important and vital element is to continue this surge which is succeeding and we are winning the war in Iraq."

Public opinion polls show Americans regard conduct of the war more favorably, and the leading Democrats favor a policy leading to withdrawal.

Senator Hillary Clinton explained to voters in South Carolina. She said, "But there is no military solution. The Iraqi government has failed politically and the Bush administration has failed diplomatically."

Another leading Democrat, Senator Barak Obama, hosted a foreign policy forum last week in New Hampshire. Obama's event featured his advisers who dispute claims Obama is inexperienced in world affairs.

The National Security Adviser under President Clinton, Tony Lake, said, "His experience, it seems to me, is greater -- even the classic kind of experience -- is greater than Bill Clinton's when he ran for president, than the current president, than Ronald Reagan, than Jimmy Carter. I could go on and on."

Obama: "The fact that all these former Clintonites are supporting me indicates their confidence in my ability to bring about changes in foreign policy that we need."

Voters in Iowa and New Hampshire will vote on their preferences for the political party nominations in early January.

Video footage courtesy of CNN