A false choice for president

Iraq war brings both candidates for American presidency together

The gap between Senator John McCain, the Republican Party’s candidate for the United States presidency next November and the Democratic Party’s candidate, Senator Barack Obama, may well differ on social issues in the US, but when it comes to the war in Iraq it is becoming increasingly more difficult to differentiate between the two parties’ platforms.

On the domestic front the two political parties are poles apart on such issues as the reform of the health care system. The US remains the only country in the Western hemisphere not to provide universal health care for its citizens, something the Democrats have been trying to change for decades only to meet stiff resistance from the Republicans on Capitol Hill, and in the White House whenever the resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a Republican, as is currently the case.

The American Left and Right clash over the question of drilling for oil in the great Alaskan reserve and they disagree over abortion rights; the Democrats are for leaving the decision to the individual woman, while the Republicans are opposed to the removal of the fetus, which they see as the taking of a human life.

However, as election day approaches, the Republican and the Democratic views on the war in Iraq — once diametrically opposed — now appear to be merging to the point where it is hard to tell them apart.
What happened?

What happened is election rhetoric, for the most part, with a good portion of battlefront realities and a rapidly developing political fait accompli in Iraq.

Throughout the campaign the Republicans have been saying what Republicans always say when it comes to war. McCain, while on his campaign trail around the country remained faithful to the George W. Bush dogma of “We shall stay the course.” Only the presidential candidate phrased it differently, stating that “United States’ military forces would remain in Iraq up to 100 years, if that’s what was needed.”

And Democrats, too, play the role Democrats usually play when they emphasized that a quick pullout from Iraq is needed, and that U.S. troops should be brought home within months.

As it turns out neither of the two policies are realistic and recent changes in Iraq will force both camps, but particularly the Republicans, to rethink their strategies, taking into consideration the rapidly shifting situation on the ground.

What appears to be happening is that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is taking the reins of this country at a much faster pace than first anticipated by the Bush administration. The big fear amongst Iraqi politicians — that a premature American withdrawal from their country would plunge it into greater turmoil — no longer exists. In early July al-Maliki said what was until now unthinkable: there was a need for the US to establish a withdrawal timetable, a statement hardly appreciated by the White House, which has been resisting both domestic and international requests it do so.

That aside, the reality as both presidential candidates are finding out is that the 130,000 or so US forces serving in Iraq are highly unlikely to remain in the country “for up to 100 years.” Nor are they likely to remain in Iraq for 100 months either. If McCain wins the White House in November he will have to accept the fact that, at the end of the day, the US will be forced to take into account the will of the Iraqi people to see their country rid of foreign troops.

If however, it is President Obama who becomes the next commander-in-chief of all US armed forces, he will soon enough discover (as a number of his foreign policy advisers have no doubt already explained to him) that the repatriation, or simply the redeployment of such a large force, cannot be accomplished in just a couple of months, but that it will require about 18 months from the minute the order to redeploy is issued.

That being said, a more recent development may in fact leave the candidates little choice, as they will be forced to respond to the sudden shifts of violence in nearby Afghanistan. Last month the death toll of US military personnel on the Hindu Kush — with 15 killed — surpassed the number of GIs killed in Iraq, which stood at six.

Indeed, the resurgence of violence in Afghanistan comes at a time when Iraq appears to be heading towards relative calm. For the first time since the U.S. invasion which overthrew Saddam Hussein, Baghdad is beginning to be regarded more and more as the master of its own destiny by other Arab countries.

While the sudden increase of anti-coalition activity in Afghanistan may yet force if not the second major deployment of NATO and Western forces, at least a serious shift in US policy regarding the region.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.