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McCain and Obama Campaigns Bedeviled by Iraq

By Bernard Weiner, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers

July 15, 2008

In the old days, colonial powers simply conquered the local population, reconfigured the maps, installed their viceroys or governors, and ruled through them from their home countries. As nationalism began to grow more strident in the colonial territories, that blatant form of rule wouldn't do, so the neo-colonial powers installed their native "made" men or worked out arrangement$ with local strongmen/dictators agreeable to doing their bidding without much complaint. Iraq, a non-nation that was carved out by the Brits and French around 1916, is a variant of the two approaches.

When CheneyBush invaded Iraq, one of the prominent cover stories was that they were bringing "democracy" to a long-repressed people. The U.S. authorities, through viceroy J. Paul Bremer, chose and installed an interim governing council, led for a good while by the former CIA asset Ayad Allawi, and then later permitted a legislative election. Out of those chosen by the populace, a prime minister and other officers were selected, with much, how shall we say, strong suggestive "input" by the U.S.

The novice leader Nouri Al-Maliki looked malleable enough to U.S. leaders as Iraq's prime minister and, since America had nearly 200,000 troops and mercenaries ("independent contractors," such as Blackwater) on the ground, it was clear U.S. wishes drove the actions of the Baghdad government.


But democracy is a difficult system of government to establish and run under any circumstances; non-natives trying to create democracies by force and then control them from the outside is especially tricky. Last week, Maliki and his foreign policy spokesmen said that Iraq would not sign any Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with the U.S. unless the Administration came up with a timetable for eventual withdrawal of all U.S. troops. (Whoops!) The Status of Forces Agreement pushed forcefully by CheneyBush would permit America to keep U.S. troops in the country past the U.N.'s authorizing deadline at the end of the year, and would make permanent the scores of U.S. military bases around the country.

Neo-colonialists are becoming more aware that granting anything called "sovereignty" to those lands they're occupying can blow up in their faces, even if they think they control the local government. Now the Iraqis seem to be behaving as if they really are sovereign, and they want the U.S. troops, along with the lawless Blackwater corporation and other mercenaries, out of their country. And, last week, they made it plain they want the U.S. out of Baghdad's Green Zone by the end of 2008.

How should the Americans respond? To aid John McCain's electoral chances, the Administration will withdraw a number of troops before the November election, but that doesn't get them off the SOFA hook. If they refuse to provide the Iraqis a SOFA timetable -- something CheneyBush have refused to do for years -- their claim of having fought a war to establish and guarantee the sovereignty of the Iraqi nation will be revealed openly for all to see as a sham, a ruse to maintain imperial control, the ultimate neo-colonialist hypocrisy.

But if they agree to provide a timetable, even if amorphous, CheneyBush and their Republican supporters will appear to be moving closer to the arguments propounded by the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Barack Obama, who says his aim is to bring virtually all U.S. troops home from Iraq within 16 months. Providing the timetable definitely would not help GOP candidate John McCain, who says he's willing to keep U.S. troops in Iraq for as long as it takes, a hundred years or more.

So, a few days ago, the U.S. had to back away from SOFA; Bush&Co. can't roll the Iraqis the way they can the Democrats at home. The next president will have to deal with the Iraqis' desire not to approve a permanent war in their country.


The GOP candidate's stance is considerably different from what McCain said at a Council of Foreign Relations meeting a few years ago; here's McCain's response when a reporter asked "What would or should we do if... a so-called sovereign Iraqi government asks us to leave, even if we are unhappy about the security situation there?":

"Well," said McCain, "if that scenario evolves then I think it's obvious that we would have to leave ... I don't see how we could stay when our whole emphasis and policy has been based on turning the Iraqi government over to the Iraqi people."

McCain, whose entire campaign for president is based on staying the course until "victory" is achieved, whatever that means, now indicates that the U.S. should just ignore such Iraqi calls for a phased withdrawal and likewise ignore poll after poll of the Iraqi population that indicates the local population overwhelmingly wants the U.S. troops to leave as soon as is practicable.

McCain's neo-con position assumes that the U.S., as the world's lone remaining superpower, knows what's good for those being occupied. Such arrogant thinking is a recipe for continued disaster in Iraq, since the very presence of the occupying force is a large share of the problem in that unfortunate country. Not leaving when asked to by the Iraqi government, a position advocated by McCain, will fuel the flames of nationalist resistance against the occupier and will further confirm the reputation of the U.S. abroad as an imperialist bully.


Which brings us to the current early stages of the presidential campaign. Even though Obama, not surprisingly, is sliding toward the center on so many of his positions these days, including what to do about bringing the troops home from Iraq, the difference between the two candidates on this explosive issue is stark:

McCain, who always reaches first for what he knows best, war, is committed to keeping American troops in Iraq for however long it takes. Obama is committed to finding a reasonable way out over time.

In addition, Obama says he's committed to a different way of conducting foreign policy other than through unnecessary wars of choice. He opposed the war in Iraq, but he says he wants to go deeper:  "I don't want to just end this war, I want to end the mindset that got us into it in the first place."

In short, if you are comfortable with a continuation of our current policy in Iraq, vote for McCain; otherwise, even if may not be the speedy and fully withdrawal so many of us want, vote for Obama.


Obama's slide toward the center is a predictable, but disquieting, election strategy as he attempts to lure more independents and moderate Republicans to his cause. It's a gamble that is based on the theory that, even though he's altering some of his core positions on many important issues (his vote for the FISA bill being the most recent and most outraging), his liberal base will stick with him as the only viable choice when faced with a primitive conservative like McCain. (And don't tell me about McCain's supposedly "maverick Republican" reputation; that persona went out the window in 2006, when McCain decided he was going to make another run at the presidency and would pander and grovel to the Far Right on an embarrassingly regular schedule.)

The Obama campaign calculates that while it might lose a few votes from disgruntled liberals and progressives (who, conceivably might opt for the Green Party's McKinney or the independent Ralph Nader or the Libertarian Bob Barr), Obama will more than make up for it by the moderates and independents he'll be picking up as Election Day nears.

It's possible this electoral strategy will prove to be correct, but it's one that comes with high risks. What propelled Obama to victory in the Democratic Party was not only, or perhaps not even mainly, because of his positions on the issues but by the momentum and enthusiasm he was able to generate, especially from young voters, because he seemed to be a fresh, dynamic young reformer. The more he seems to be just another politician, the more he risks losing that momentum and support as we get closer to the November election. In recent weeks, his once double-digit lead over McCain has virtually disappeared, and his small-donor fund-raising has dropped off considerably. Are the voters trying to tell him something? Can he hear it?

By behaving this way, Obama has given McCain breathing room and permitted the GOP candidate to climb back into respectability as a viable candidate, even despite the GOP senator's many gaffes and incomprehensible errors of judgment.   If they really are errors; given McCain's advanced age, there's a possibility that his mind and memory are starting to go. It may not seem fair to raise this issue, but we've already experienced the unfortunate results of having had one aged GOP leader as president, Ronald Reagan, who by the end of his term was entering the fog of Alzheimer's.


Just look at McCain's recent statements on Social Security, one of the most popular programs in American history. Many Republican politicians have called for reform of the program over the years, and have suffered little negative reaction from the citizenry. But last week, McCain made a statement that indicated he wasn't merely opposed to how Social Security was being run but to the original reasons for establishing it. Mentally, he's still back in the early-1960s, arguing against creating the program.

Here's what McCain said last week: "Americans have got to understand that we are paying present-day retirees with the taxes paid by young workers in America today. And that's a disgrace. It's an absolute disgrace and it's got to be fixed."

Josh Marshall adds:

"Now, the meaning of the words are very clear. He's saying that the fact that Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system is an 'absolute disgrace'. In short, he appears not to understand that the SSA system works precisely on that principle. ... He's trying to talk his way out of his huge gaffe, but it's clear that Obama and the AARP are going to go after him big time during the general election campaign, and he will lose a huge portion of America's senior citizens because of this stand."

But the central point of this essay is not Social Security but Iraq and how a sometimes befuddled McCain has it wrong there as well.

The American people have made plain in the past several years that they want the U.S. to disentangle itself from that CheneyBush catastrophe in Iraq. On this point, the choice facing voters in November is unusually clear between the two candidates. More war = McCain. Winding down the war = Obama.

On the Iraq issue right now, that's the only equation that matters.

Copyright 2008, by Bernard Weiner


Bernard Weiner, Ph.D., has taught government & international relations at universities in California and Washington, worked as a writer/editor at the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades, and currently serves as co-editor of The Crisis Papers (www.crisispapers.org). To comment: crisispapers@comcast.net .

Crisis Papers editors, Partridge & Weiner, are available for public speaking appearances