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Algora Publishing - Oil and Religion Put U.S. Race in a Global Spotlight
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Oil and Religion Put U.S. Race in a Global Spotlight
By Jim Hoagland The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - Oil and religion count mightily in world politics and governance. The running mates whom Al Gore and George W. Bush have chosen bring those two factors and the global interest that oil and religion command into a campaign that has been an all-American affair until now.

However much American voters minimize the importance of Joe Lieberman's Jewish faith and Dick Cheney's oil-drenched history to their decision in November, the perceptions - and actions - of key foreign nations will be shaped by those two factors as much as by all the campaign speeches and rallies to come this autumn.

It could hardly be otherwise: In the Middle East, states are founded on oil (Kuwait), religion (Israel) or both (Iran, Saudi Arabia). Official U.S. attitudes on oil prices and energy supplies are matters of economic life or death to Russia, Venezuela, Japan and other nations outside the Gulf as well.

Mr. Lieberman's status as the first Jewish candidate on a national ticket also spotlights U.S. relations with Israel at a sensitive moment in Middle East peacemaking. Mr. Gore's campaign choice followed by days President Bill Clinton's suggestion that he is considering moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem before leaving office. The combination will be seen in the Middle East as a line-drawing by the Democrats.

Add in the clear stands on Cold War and other foreign issues that both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Lieberman have taken in their distinguished careers and their presence clarifies for foreigners the choosing of sides in the American contest: These particular running mates make a statement to the world of the intentions and outlooks of the candidates, intended or not.

Other nations will advance, delay or make decisions with an eye to tipping the vote to the party that will do them the most good, while trying not to get caught at it. Or they will adjust their actions to avoid becoming the target of damaging campaign rhetoric and actions.

Saudi Arabia's promise in July to raise production to keep prices in the $28-a-barrel range helped stabilize oil markets as prices became a national issue in the United States this summer. Coincidental? Or could it be a result of the intense study the Saudi royal family makes of the U.S. political scene and its deep concern about the damage a campaign controversy could do to the Saudi strategic relationship with the United States?

The experience of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney in the Texas oil industry, and Mr. Cheney's experience as defense secretary and manager of the 1991 war to free Kuwait's oil fields from Iraq recommend them to the Arabs and other OPEC nations as men to do business with.

That should put the Arab world firmly in the column of those who see the Republicans' combined laissez-faire, realpolitik ethos as easier to work with than the Democrats' unpredictable flirtations with human rights, labor standards and other causes. Moscow, too, indicates a yearning for more predictable deal-making with Washington, unperturbed by sudden lurches into NATO expansion or stationing U.S. troops in the Balkans.

Mr. Lieberman fits the recent Democratic profile of emphasizing support for Israel, sympathy for the Third World and a readiness to take risks to advance democracy and universal human rights abroad. A strong supporter of military action in the Balkans, the Connecticut senator co-authored the Iraq Liberation Act and his door has always been open to Saddam Hussein's foes.

This activist record will be an important asset in his principal job in the only debate that he and Mr. Cheney will have, in October.

Mr. Lieberman will have to diminish or destroy the perceived advantage that Mr. Cheney's national security experience brings the Republican Party ticket that night.

One of 10 Democratic senators who voted for Operation Desert Storm, Mr. Lieberman can ask Mr. Cheney credibly why he failed to finish off Saddam Hussein when the United States had the chance. Republican caution on the wars of former Yugoslavia and on aiding a democratic Russia to emerge from the wreckage of the Soviet Union is also a target for Mr. Lieberman, who is likely to become Mr. Gore's chief surrogate spokesman on foreign affairs in this campaign.

The world will be watching this campaign with heightened interest and concern now. To fully understand the forces that are shaping the U.S. choice in November, the candidates and voters in America need to be watching the world back.