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As millions of Americans prepare to go to the polls on Tuesday, joining the estimated 50 million who have already cast their ballots, they might take a few moments to ask themselves a simple question: What are we voting for?
Going by the narrative peddled by a good chunk of the US media the election is all about one man: President Donald J. Trump.
This is all well and good; all elections at such levels include a dose of personal consideration of the candidates. Visiting several cities across the states in 2008, many voters told us that they were casting their ballots for Barack Obama because they thought it was time the US had a black president. The fact that he had no record to present didn't matter. In 2016 it was Trump's turn to benefit from his status as the outsider. In both cases, however, Obama and Trump appeared like blank slates on which voters could draw cherished expectations.
This time, however, both candidates, Trump and Joe Biden, are known candidates. Trump has had almost four years in which to make himself known as a political leader. For his part, Biden boasts a CV that covers almost half a century of involvement with politics, albeit mostly on the sidelines as Senator and Vice President. That fact alone should have helped focus attention on the policy records of both men, offering the American voter a richer and deeper choice beyond personal sympathies and antipathies. Sadly, that didn't happen.
From the start, this year's presidential campaign was transformed into a shouting match that owed nothing to the jeerings of fishwives in the old Covent Garden. The hope some of us had was for the campaign to be propelled into some higher ground through the presidential debates where, we wrongly expected, the two men would expose and compare their respective policies. As you know, that didn't happen. One debate was reduced to a Punch and Judy show in bad taste. Another debate was wasted on an exchange of inanities about Covid-19, something about which neither candidate, like the rest of us, knows anything useful.
The initial success of America's recent economic policy was based on three factors: a substantial tax cut, energy independence, and a more level playing field in foreign trade. It is not all clear what Biden would do in those fields. Will he come out with a high tax scenario at a time the economy is grappling with the crippling effect of Covid-19? Will he stop or curtail fracking and lose the status of number one global energy producer that the US has won for the first time since the 1960s? Will he undo the new trade deals reached with Canada, Mexico and the European Union that tipped the balance, albeit gingerly, in favor of the US?
As far as foreign policy is concerned, the whole topic was dropped from the debates' agenda, perhaps because the record might look too successful. Thus, many questions remain. For example, will the US simply re-join the so-called Paris Accord on climate change even though none of the remaining signatories has complied with it?
Will the US simply apologize and resume signing cheques for UNESCO and the World Health Organization (WHO) without insisting on reforms that most member nations regard as urgently needed?
On NATO, will the US roll back the Trump footage and allow member states to reduce defense expenditure, leaving the US to shoulder more of the burden of common security? Will Biden dismantle the build-up of troops and materiel that has bolstered the allies in Central and Eastern Europe?
On strategic arms limitation schemes, will the US abandon recent demands to expand any agreement to include China or will he insist on a Cold War style check with Vladimir Putin? Will the US give the two fingers to Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi, instead, hug Nicolas Maduro as Obama did with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro?
And what about fixing some red lines to curb China's hubris translated into aggressive behavior across the globe? Would the US stop calling for greater accountability by China with regard to the Covid-19 catastrophe?
On the Middle East, will the US simply revive the Obama "nuke deal" with the Islamic Republic in Iran, lift sanctions and help the mullahs feed the monsters they have created across the globe in the name of exporting revolution? Will the US resume smuggling crisp greenbacks to Tehran to help "the moderate faction" smile more tooth-fully while "the radical faction" massacres Iranian protesters in the streets?
Will the US bring back the US Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and call Senator George Mitchell to resume the one-year mission Obama gave him in 2008 to create a Palestinian state? Will the US pressure the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan to renege on their normalization accord with Israel and re-join the Rejection Front?
Will the US stab long-term allies of the US in the back in the hope of turning deadly foes into friends, as Obama tried to do with his infamous speech at Cairo's Al-Azhar University?
What about America's ambitious though problematic plan to wind down US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus closing the 30-year long chapter of war with a sustainable peace? Will the US revert to Obama's policy of talking peace but waging war or will he, as Bernie Sanders demands, simply cut and run?
And what about the obsession of 2008 with carving Iraq into three or four mini-states?
All this may sound irrelevant to many, including some media colleagues. But they would be wise to take a moment and ponder that: maybe whatever the US did wasn't all bad. Just, maybe. Think about it!
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published in a slightly different form by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.