Foreign Policy in the Fertile Crescent
McCain grabbed headlines when he spoke about a potential 100-year troop commitment in Iraq, later clarifying that he does not oppose a presence in the region so long as American lives are not being lost in the process. He argues that the surge strategy he authored is working, that sectarian violence and combat deaths have both declined dramatically. In his mind, premature withdrawal would only strengthen the enemy, making Iraq a haven for terrorists and leaving its fragile government vulnerable to failed state status. Instead, a stable and democratic state is his goal, one defended by an all-Iraqi army, allowing American troops to finally come home.
The senior Arizona senator highlights many of the gains in Iraq attributed to the surge: a 90 percent reduction in sectarian violence, a 70 percent reduction in civilian and combat deaths, conciliation across ethnic groups, and the passage of 4 of 6 benchmarks by the Iraqi legislature as defined by the United States. He acknowledges the remaining economic uncertainties and calls for the Iraqi legislature to hire workers to develop critical infrastructure. Moreover, McCain would like to push Iran and Syria to stop arming the enemy and standing as supporters of instability.
More than anything, McCain believes in candid communication with the American people. A sample of his "straight talk" on the issue follows.
"I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal is an Iraq that can stand on its own as a democratic ally and a responsible force for peace in its neighborhood. Our goal is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops. And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I do not believe that anyone should make promises as a candidate for President that they cannot keep if elected. To promise a withdrawal of our forces from Iraq, regardless of the calamitous consequences to the Iraqi people, our most vital interests, and the future of the Middle East, is the height of irresponsibility. It is a failure of leadership. "
McCain's rhetoric serves as a fitting transition to his presumed opponent, Obama, who he implicitly criticizes in the aforementioned statement. The junior Illinois senator admits that violence has receded in part due to the surge, but it came at a great cost, and only subsided to the "unsustainable" levels of mid-2006. Moreover, it has failed in its promise to provide breathing room for political progress. Obama suggests that little has been accomplished to address the root causes of civil war in Iraq. Furthermore, the massive troop deployment in the country has placed undue strain on our nation's military and diverted attention from a worthy war in Afghanistan.
As suggested earlier, Obama opposed military intervention in Iraq even before the conflict began, speaking at an antiwar rally in 2002, warning of “an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences.” He spoke out against the war on the campaign trail as he ran for the Senate, but tamped down his criticism, even suggesting that his position wasn't all that different from that of President Bush. Former President Clinton even accused Obama of taking down the text of his infamous speech from his web site during this period. By 2005, Obama called for a phased withdrawal of American troops, going further the next year in proposing a timetable and a political solution to the foreign policy crisis. He submitted a plan of his own in 2007 for complete withdrawal by March of 2008.
Shortly thereafter, presidential candidate Obama crafted a 16-month plan for troop withdrawal to take effect immediately upon his installation as Commander-in-Chief. No permanent base in Iraq would be established, and only a small contingent of troops would remain in the country to defend the American embassy. At the same time, Obama proposes diplomatic pressure on Iraqi leaders via the United Nations to spur political conciliation, plus engagement of other nations in the region, Iran and Syria included (more on this later). He also seeks to address a humanitarian crisis within Iraq as an estimated 2 million citizens left the country and another 2 million are displaced within.
Obama, in his own words, offers a stern contrast and challenge to those uttered by his fall opponent:
"But conventional thinking in Washington lined up for war. The pundits judged the political winds to be blowing in the direction of the President. Despite - or perhaps because of how much experience they had in Washington, too many politicians feared looking weak and failed to ask hard questions. Too many took the President at his word instead of reading the intelligence for themselves. Congress gave the President the authority to go to war. Our only opportunity to stop the war was lost.
I made a different judgment. I thought our priority had to be finishing the fight in Afghanistan. I spoke out against what I called 'a rash war' in Iraq. I worried about, ‘an occupation of undetermined length, with undetermined costs, and undetermined consequences.’ The full accounting of those costs and consequences will only be known to history. But the picture is beginning to come into focus."
As Obama emerged as McCain's probable opponent, both candidates have sharpened their criticisms of one another, particularly on this issue and the more general subject of foreign policy. The Republican National Committee has commenced with a running clock of the days since Obama has visited Iraq since his January 2006 trip to the country, 872 days and running. McCain has latched onto this issue, arguing that Obama is more willing to meet with the likes of Iranian President Ahmadinejad than General Petraeus, at the same time remaining ignorant of the progress on the ground attributed to the surge. McCain even offered to chaperon Obama on such a voyage. The presumptive Democratic nominee scoffed at the suggestion, considering it nothing more than a "political stunt," but did raise the possibility of a visit of his own this summer once the party mantle is firmly in place on his shoulders.
McCain has also taken a chapter from Clinton in criticizing Obama for his willingness to meet with leaders from countries unfriendly to the U.S. without preconditions, including the likes of Ahmadinejad, Venezuela's Chavez, and Cuba's Castro. The most recent sparring was triggered by President Bush's nod to European appeasement of Hitler during a speech to the Israeli Knesset, where Obama extracted by implication that his own definition of diplomacy was draped in eerie parallels. The junior Illinois senator his since qualified his pledge, putting in place some preconditions, even stating his refusal to meet with likes of Hamas.
McCain's challenge on this issue, and many others for that matter, is to distance himself from the most unpopular president in modern history. Bush, for better or for worse, will be tied to the Iraq War for all of history, and McCain, in embracing the war and arguably assuming an even more militant stance than his former rival, assumes considerable political risk in doing so. Public opinion, as it pertains to the Iraq War, is demonstrably on Obama's side.
A Gallup Poll conducted from May 4-6 reveals that 57 percent of Americans favor a timetable for withdrawal as specified by Obama. However, only 30 percent favor withdrawal within the next 6 months, with another 27 percent suggesting it should begin some time next year. A full 39 percent oppose timetables altogether. Contrary to McCain's suggestions and his fellow supporters of the war, a majority (58 percent) of Americans do not believe that withdrawing from Iraq will invite more terrorist attacks on the U.S. 22 percent agree with McCain, and an additional 17 percent think withdrawal would make us more safe.
The picture is quite clear. According to public opinion, McCain stands on the wrong side of an unpopular war, and the positions of his opponent largely reflect those of a significant majority of the populace. Given that McCain's foreign policy experience is arguably his best asset, how, then, is he running competitive with Obama in head-to-head polls? Perhaps this a product of other factors like previous record, personality, even demographic variables that have served as a drag on Obama's candidacy throughout the nomination cycle. It could also be attributed to the relative stances of the two candidates on the remaining issues I will explore over the next several weeks.
In the end, many unknown variables still characterize this race a little more than five months from November 4. Even the Iraq War, an issue with a stark divide between the two presumptive nominees, will likely change in complexion as summer fades to fall and Americans are asked to assess who will best secure peace there and at home. Regardless, McCain and Obama have laid down their respective gauntlets, leaving it for voters to decide the fate of the signature foreign policy endeavor of the decade.