October 1, 2008

In their first debate, Senators McCain and Obama discussed their views on policy toward Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Three student readings offer excerpts from the candidates and commentary on them. Discussion questions follow

In their first debate, Senators McCain and Obama discussed a number of foreign policy issues. The three student readings below offer excerpts from the candidates' views on policy toward Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. Following these excerpts are commentaries by the author aimed at complicating students' thinking about these issues. Discussion questions follow.

For earlier, but still relevant, materials, on U.S. policy in this region, see  "Iraq: The Surge & Power Struggles" "The Spread of Nuclear Weapons," "Pakistan: Unstable Ally" and "Afghanistan: The Return of the Taliban and Heroin."

Student Reading 1:

Debate & Commentary on Iraq

In the first debate between 2008 presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates answered questions from moderator Jim Lehrer of PBS on several foreign policy issues, including US policies toward Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Lehrer: What do you see as the lessons of Iraq?

McCain: [After our initial military success] we went into Baghdad and everybody celebrated. And then the war was very badly mishandled. I went to Iraq in 2003 and came back and said, we've got to change this strategy. This strategy requires additional troops, it requires a fundamental change in strategy and I fought for it. And finally, we came up with a great general [David Petraeus] and a strategy that has succeeded [the "surge" of troops that began last year] and our troops will come home, and not in defeat...we will see a stable ally in the region and a fledgling democracy.

The consequences of defeat would have been increased Iranian influence. It would have been an increase in sectarian violence. It would have been a wider war [and] the United States of America might have had to come back. Senator Obama said the surge could not work, said it was doomed to failure. Recently on a television program he said it exceeded our wildest expectations.

Obama: Senator McCain and I have a fundamental difference because I think the fundamental question is whether we should have gone to war in the first place. Now six years ago, I stood up and opposed this war at a time when it was politically risky to do so because I said that not only did we not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn't finished the job in Afghanistan. We hadn't caught bin Laden. We hadn't put al Qaeda to rest. Now Senator McCain and President Bush had a very different judgment.

And I wish I had been wrong for the sake of the country, and they had been right, but that's not the case. We've spent over $600 billion so far, soon to be $1 trillion. We have lost over 4,000 lives. We have seen 30,000 wounded, and most importantly, from a strategic national security perspective, al Qaeda is resurgent, stronger now that at any time since 2001. We have to use our military wisely. And we did not use our military wisely in Iraq Senator McCain is absolutely right that the violence has been reduced as a consequence of the extraordinary sacrifice of our troops and our military families.

McCain: The next president of the United States is not going to have to address the issue as to whether we went into Iraq or not. The next president of the United States is going to have to decide how we leave, when we leave, and what we leave behind. That's the decision of the next president of the United States.

Obama: John, you like to pretend like the war started in 2007. The war started in 2003, and at the time when the war started, you said it was going to be quick and easy. You said we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were. You were wrong. You said that we were going to be greeted as liberators. You were wrong. You said that there was no history of violence between Shia and Sunni. And you were wrong.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What do the two candidates agree about?

3. What do they disagree about?

4. Whose arguments do you favor? Why?

5. Obama comments on the cost of the Iraq war to the US, but not on the cost to Iraqis. What do you think those have been? If you don't know, how might you find out?


A Commentary

In January 2007, President Bush launched the "surge," which meant adding 30,000 US troops to the 130,000 already in Iraq plus tens of thousands of Blackwater Worldwide private armed guards. The president said the purpose was to reduce violence and give Iraqis "a breathing space" in which they might move toward political reconciliation.

Senator McCain says that the surge has been a great success. He argues that since he had long urged the administration to send additional American troops to Iraq, his judgment has now been vindicated. Senator Obama seems to agree with his opponent that the surge has been a "success"—although he views the war itself as a grave mistake.

It is true that it is now safer to live in Baghdad and many other places in Iraq—though violence continues and hundreds of Iraqis are killed and/or wounded monthly.

But in the debate, neither candidate mentioned two factors that played a major role in reducing violence and had little to do with the US troop increase:

1) "Ethnic cleansing" in Baghdad

During 2007, American troops disarmed Sunnis in their Baghdad neighborhoods because they were a significant source of violent opposition to the US occupation. Shiite militias seized this opportunity to undertake an orgy of ethnic cleansing against their now-unarmed enemy.

For example, the Shaab district had included a mix of Sunnis and Shiites. Soon there were practically no Sunnis. Those who weren't killed either escaped the country (mostly to Syria) or moved elsewhere in Iraq. Baghdad's population had been 65 percent Sunni. After these events, the city was at least 75 percent Shiite. Violence declined with the decline of mixed neighborhoods and when the US army created walls to separate neighborhoods. (The source for these observations is Juan Cole, a Middle East history professor and an expert on Iraq. See www.juancole.com, 7/24/08)

2) Sunni militants turning against Al Qaeda in Iraq

By mid to late 2006, Sunni militants who had been allied with the fundamentalist religious group "Al Qaeda in Iraq" had turned against it. They formed al-Sahwa, "the Awakening," and allied themselves with the Americans before the surge began. The US Treasury has been paying some 80,000 al-Sahwa members $300 per month, a good salary in Iraq, to guard their own neighborhoods and kill the dwindling members of Al Qaeda. Violence declined as a result of this development, which began well before the surge.

Many Americans have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the purpose of the surge was, as President Bush declared, to provide "a breathing space" for political reconciliation among Shiites and Sunnis. The surge has not been very successful in bringing this about. In the election of 2006 supported by the Bush administration, Shiite parties came out ahead. The majority of Iraqis are Shiites, although Sunni Muslims had dominated the government for years. The new Shiite-dominated government has not shown much interest in reconciling with Sunni enemies who oppressed and killed them during Saddam Hussein's rule. Two major examples of this continuing enmity are: 1) the failure to bring a reasonable number of Sunnis into the government, and 2) the failure of the two groups to agree upon a fair distribution of Iraq's substantial oil revenues, a major portion of which derive from wells in Shiite-controlled southern Iraq.

Another major source of oil is in northern Iraq, in the Kirkuk area, which is controlled by Kurds. The Kurds have established a mostly autonomous territory for themselves in northern Iraq. The Iraqi government has been unable to hold provincial elections in Kirkuk—a city of Kurds, Arabs, and Turks—mainly because Kurds want control of the oil and the city. This is a further example of the failure of political reconciliation to date.

McCain cites no evidence to support his view that when American troops go home, they will leave behind "a fledgling democracy" and "a stable ally in the region."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the commentary? How might they be answered?

2. In what sense does the commentary indicate success for the surge? In what sense a lack of success?

3. Why do you think that McCain says nothing about such matters as ethnic cleansing or the Awakening's roles in reducing violence? Obama?

4. What evidence is there of a lack of surge success in producing political reconciliation? How do you explain this failure? What does that suggest about Iraq's future after American troops leave?


Student Reading 2:

Debate & Commentary on Iran

Lehrer: What is your reading on the threat of Iran right now to the security of the United States?

McCain: My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel a compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council.

I have proposed a league of democracies, a group of countries that share common interests, common values, common ideals, they also control a lot of the world's economic power. We could impose significant meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians that I think could have a beneficial effect.

The Iranians have a lousy government, so therefore their economy is lousy even though they have significant oil revenues. So I am convinced that together, we can, with the French, with the British, with the Germans and other countries, democracies around the world, we can affect Iranian behavior.

What I'd also like to point out is that the Iranians are putting the most lethal IEDs [improvised explosive devices] into Iraq which are killing young Americans. There are special groups in Iran coming into Iraq and are being trained in Iraq. Have no doubt about the ultimate result of them acquiring nuclear weapons.

Obama: The single thing that has strengthened Iran over the last several years has been the war in Iraq. Iraq was Iran's mortal enemy. That was cleared away. And what we've seen over the last several years is Iran's influence grow. They have funded Hezbollah, they have funded Hamas, they have gone from zero centrifuges to 4,000 centrifuges to develop a nuclear weapon.

Senator McCain is absolutely right, we cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran. Not only would it threaten Israel, a country that is our stalwart ally, but it would also create an environment which could set off an arms race in the Middle East.

I do not agree with Senator McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with countries like Russia and China that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies, but have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapons.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Is Iran developing nuclear weapons, as both candidates indicate? If you can't answer this question, where might you look for information about it?

3. What do you know about Iran's relationship with Iraq that would support or contradict McCain's comments about it?

4. What do you think about McCain's proposal for a league of democracies? Why does Obama not think it a good idea?

A Commentary

Senator Obama recognizes what Senator McCain apparently does not—that the war in Iraq has strengthened Iran. During Saddam Hussein's repressive and at times murderous regime, Sunnis ruled over Shiites. During this period, many Shiites took refuge in neighboring Iran, a Shiite country, and developed close ties. Now many of those Shiite exiles have returned to Iraq and have become religious and political leaders—thus increasing Iran's influence in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has been supported by the Bush administration, has gone to Tehran to consult with Iranian leaders. The Badr Corps of the largest Shiite faction, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was based and trained in Iran during the Saddam years. Iraq and Iran have established trade relations, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed warmly during his visit earlier this year to Iraq to meet with its leaders.

Despite Iran's influence in Iraq, its religious regime is not one Iraqis would support. Most Iraqis oppose both the US occupation and a theocratic government like Iran's in their country. (Robert Dreyfuss, www.thenation.com, 2/21/08) In short, the Iraqi-Iranian relationship is complicated.

As for Iran's nuclear program, Iranian leaders insist it is for peaceful energy purposes only. But Iran has repeatedly withheld information about the program from the International Atomic Energy Agency. The US and its allies have been pressing Iran through negotiations and some economic sanctions to end its enrichment of uranium, a process that could lead to Iran's building nuclear weapons.

In the debate, neither candidate discussed the U.S.'s own inconsistent behavior on nuclear weapons. The Bush and previous US administrations have never proposed economic sanctions or any other penalties on Israel, which is known to have nuclear weapons. It has not urged Israel to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Nor have the US or any of the other nuclear powers lived up to their own commitments under the NPT to eliminate their own nuclear arsenals.

If, as Senator McCain says, an Iran with nuclear weapons would be "an existential threat" to Israel, why isn't Israel such a threat to Iran right now? And what evidence does Senator Obama have that a nuclear Iran "would threaten" Israel? It is true that Iran is a strong opponent of the Israeli government. President Ahmadinejad has stated publicly his prediction that Israel will disappear, though he has never said how. He has never threatened an attack on Israel, despite frequent claims by American politicians to the contrary. Iranian leaders surely know about and fear Israel's nuclear weapons arsenal. The candidates do not explain why, in such circumstances, Iran is a threat to Israel.

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the commentary? How might they be answered?

2. In his 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush named Iran, as well as Iraq and North Korea, as part of an "axis of evil." How then would you explain US support for an Iraqi government that maintains trade and other relations with Iran?

3. How would you explain the inconsistent position of the US and other nuclear nations on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty?

Student Reading 3:

Debate & Commentary on Afghanistan

Lehrer: Now having resolved Iraq, we'll move to Afghanistan. (Laughter) .... Do you think more troops—more US troops should be sent to Afghanistan, how many, and when?

Obama: Yes, I think we need more troops....And I think that we have to do it as quickly as possible, because it's been acknowledged by the commanders on the ground the situation is getting worse, not better. We had the highest fatalities among US troops this past year than at any time since 2002. And we are seeing a major offensive taking place — al Qaeda and Taliban crossing the border and attacking our troops in a brazen fashion. They are feeling emboldened.

And we cannot separate Afghanistan from Iraq, because what our commanders have said is we don't have the troops right now to deal with Afghanistan.

McCain: ...Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn't understand, it's got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq. It's going to have to be employed in Afghanistan.

And we're going to have to help the Pakistanis go into these areas and obtain the allegiance of the people. And it's going to be tough.... But we have to get the cooperation of the people in those areas. And the Pakistanis are going to have to understand that that bombing in the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was a signal from the terrorists that they don't want that government to cooperate with us in combating the Taliban and jihadist elements.

So we've got a lot of work to do in Afghanistan. But I'm confident, now that General Petraeus is in the new position of command, that we will employ a strategy which not only means additional troop —and, by the way, there have been 20,000 additional troops, from 32,000 to 53,000, and there needs to be more.

A Commentary

Neither candidate offers a clear explanation for the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan or for how more American troops would reverse it. They offer no lessons from the Soviet failure in the 1980s to control Afghanistan or from the British failure in the 19th century. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." wrote George Santayana in The Life of Reason (1905).

The corruption of the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan and the American and NATO military presence there have turned Afghans against the occupying forces, especially because American air strikes have repeatedly killed Afghan civilians. As a result, the Taliban are gaining more recruits.

Neither candidate offers a clear explanation of what he would do about the safe haven in Pakistan or addressed a major reason for it. Though the US has contributed nearly $10 billion in recent years to the effort to eliminate the safe havens, Pakistani governments past and present have been unsuccessful in eliminating them. A significant reason is that members of the Pakistani intelligence service and army have supported the Taliban for years. They have viewed the Taliban as helping to prevent India's and America's control over Afghanistan.

The main threat to the future of Afghanistan is not Al Qaeda, but the Taliban, even if Osama bin Laden survives in a mountainous Pakistani hideout. It has become a decentralized organization and its Pakistani elements are not a significant threat to the US


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the McCain and Obama's responses on Afghanistan? How might they be answered?

2. Do students agree with the commentary? What questions do they have about it and how might they be answered?

3. Why is the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating?

4. What are some of the reasons why sending additional American troops is unlikely to change that situation? If you disagree, what reasons can you offer to support additional American troops?

5. Why do some leaders in Pakistan, a US ally, support the Taliban?

6. How do you account for audience laughter after Lehrer introduced the Afghanistan issue?


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org