When the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore were held in October 2000, the 9/11 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 reform Social Security and Medicare than how theyd bolster Americas security.

Now, theres 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 blind-sided 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 9/11 attacks, for example, surprised us all, but they were hardly a bolt out of the blue. In August 1998, Osama bin Ladens 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 worlds leading exporter of terrorism, Islamic revolution, and opium.

Wed also seen the USS Cole bombed while it lay in port in Yemen. And lets not forget the first bombing attack on the World Trade Center in 1993.

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

Its easy to forget sometimes that the president is also the commander-in-chief. Maybe its human nature to want to forget. After all, who wants to dwell on the fact that its 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.

Thats why it was heartening to see the last debate between the Republican candidates focus on foreign policy. Its crucial that we hear, for example, what they would do to ensure that Iran doesnt wind up armed with nuclear weapons. Or how theyd handle trade with China. Or what they would do to help bring peace to the Middle East. Or how theyd respond to religious persecution. Or what they think about foreign aid. And so on.

We need to hear more from the candidates on these and other related topics. Thats what led Heritage to join with the American Enterprise Institute and CNN to sponsor a debate on foreign policy and national security on Nov. 22.

What ideal timing -- 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 wont happen automatically. It takes action. So let the debate begin.

(Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation, www.heritage.org.)