Iraq & the Candidates

As the US presidential race intensifies, it is becoming clear that the campaigns of the leading candidates are largely defined by two absences: the absence of a fundamentally different Democratic approach to the war from that of the Bush administration, and the absence of the Iraq war and its Iraqi victims.


To be sure, the three leading candidates in the US presidential campaign- the Republican John McCain, and the two democratic contenders Hilary Clinton and Barak Obama, have talked about Iraq.


But their positions are circumscribed by one single obsession: the level of US military force needed to turn the Iraq fiasco into a salvageable venture and serve American interests in Iraq and the region. There is no categorical commitment to ending the war; there is no definitive undertaking to ending the occupation. And that despite evidence that both the American people and the Iraqi people want an end to the war and to the occupation.


All three candidates refuse to commit themselves to ending the violence and ending the occupation.


John McCain is absurdly belligerent. He advocates a militaristic approach to American foreign policy for the purpose of rolling back “rogue states” and “overthrowing regimes that threaten our interests and values.” This will guarantee a state of permanent conflict with those who do not share American values-the majority of the people of this world.


He frames the issues in militaristic terms in a world-wide struggle to impose American values. Thus he writes: “The next president must be prepared to lead America and the world to victory”(Foreign Affairs , November/December 2007)


His perspective is as simplistic as it is reductively dangerous, He identifies the enemy as none other than radical Islam and Iraq as the place to defeat it: “Defeating radical Islamist extremists is the national security challenge of our time.” He writes, “Iraq is this war’s central front.”


He proudly borrows from Bush’s phraseology: “That is why I support our continuing efforts to win in Iraq.” In fact, McCain goes where Bush has not gone by not only openly speaking about a long-term relationship with Iraq-as Bush put it-but by saying that the United States could stay in Iraq for “may be a hundred years”. And that “would be fine with me.” (The American Conservative, Feb 11.08)




Senator Hillary Clinton was a strident supporter of the Iraq war; she voted for it and uncritically endorsed the false and misleading statements made by various Bush administration officials, including the discredited claims about Iraq’s link to Al Qaeda.


Even when it became clear after the American invasion of Iraq that there were no weapons of mass destruction and no Iraqi links to Al Qaeda, and that essentially the American people had been misled, Hillary Clinton continued to defend her support for the war.


During the campaign she spoke about withdrawing from Iraq. But withdrawal in her mind meant redeployment and some reduction of forces, in other words a better utilization of American power. Her interest is not in ending an illegitimate and illegal occupation, not in relieving the suffering of the Iraqi people, but in rebuilding American power being drained by the Bush mismanagement of the war. In her article for Foreign Affairs, she wrote:” we will have to replenish American power by getting out of Iraq, rebuilding our military, and developing a much broader arsenal of tools in the fight against terrorism.”  Foreign Affairs , November/December 2007)


By “getting out of Iraq” she means withdrawing some troops from Iraq but maintaining “military as well as political missions” in Iraq for the foreseeable future. In short her approach might be called Bush-light.


Senator Barak Obama espouses, with slight modifications, the standard discourse about Iraq, referring to the imperative need, not to end the occupation and the war, but to defeat the Iraqi insurgency. He too calls for troop withdrawal but within the overall frame of extended “renewed but active presence in Iraq.” He has explicitly ruled out any guarantee for a total U.S. withdrawal from Iraq by the end of his first term in 2013.


He is careful not to depart from the democratic establishment approach to the Iraqi war, namely criticizing its mismanagement while offering various troop withdrawal scenarios to better achieve the goal of ‘defeating the insurgency. "I do think it is important for us not only to protect our embassy,” he said, “but also to engage in counter-terrorism activities. We’ve seen progress against AQI [Al Qaeda in Iraq]… I think that we should have some strike capability.” (New York Times, Nov 2.07):


Obama also made it clear that he believes that American strength depends not on American moral values but on a strong military: “To renew American leadership in the world,” he wrote, “we must immediately begin working to revitalize our military.” (Foreign Affairs , July/August 2007)


As to the occupation and its oppression of the Iraqi people, the candidates have judged it best to ignore it completely and preferred to echo with some reservations the Bush claims about recent ‘progress’ in Iraq.


But most Iraqis seem to be experiencing not progress, but growing resentment. An Iraqi journalist recently wrote that at the beginning of the occupation many Iraqis distinguished between American policies and the American people. But after “brutal US military operations against cities like Najaf, Fallujah, Al-Qa’im, Samarra, and Ramadi, after Abu Ghraib, after Haditha… I began to witness occupation-weary Iraqis ceasing to draw that same critical line.”


Perhaps it is not realistic to expect the candidates to show concern for the plight of the Iraqi people or listen to their demand for an end to the occupation. After all, a majority of Americans too want an end to the occupation and their views are nowhere to be reflected in the platforms of the leading candidates.


Prof. Adel Safty’s latest book, Leadership and Democracy, is published in  New York

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