Foreign Policy in the Second Debate, and Unanswered Questions
I can’t believe that while Senators Obama and McCain, upon Brokaw’s prodding, were discussing the distastefulness of the bloodletting that's gone on in Darfur, Congo, Somalia, and Rwanda, and how it would be imperative on the United States to intervene to prevent such genocide or ethnic cleansing in the future, neither one of them brought up Saddam Hussein’s crimes against the Iraqi people—and that the world should at least be thankful that there is one less totalitarian tyrant out there victimizing a battered nation.
Has no one been watching the trials on counts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and gross violations of human rights that have been going on in Iraq? I guess not, since ‘Chemical Ali’, who’s been convicted of waging genocide against the Kurds, is still in US custody; the latter refusing to hand him over to face execution. But the real scandal is that this is not a scandal from the perspective of human rights activists. After all, it is fashionable to be supportive of African causes, but the Iraqi people simply don’t have many (or any) celebrity endorsements. I don’t hold this solely against Western reporters or Hollywood: I’ve long believed that the Iraqi government—specifically Zebari’s Foreign Ministry—has dropped the ball on publicizing Saddam’s crimes to the world.
Just a general note on the second debate: Both candidates did slightly better than their respective earlier performances (remember, I thought Obama was “atrocious” in the first). But once again, it was boring. I don’t know where they find these polls saying that Obama won the first and second debates; I guess I was watching these chats from different camera angles than the rest of TV audiences across the U.S. And the same point needs to be made: Obama, for all his hyped-up ‘smarts’, has not shown any growth in knowledge over the last six months. Same talking points, same delivery.
And here, I just want to repeat I want to make about Iraq and this election that I made a few days ago (it was buried within a longer post):
Iraq is what jump-started the presidential campaigns of those left standing in the post-primary season: Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama’s judgment on the beginning of the war, and McCain’s support for the surge, are supposedly what set them apart from their respective contenders. Obama's running mate, Senator Joe Biden, proposed the most important foreign policy initiative of his career under what was called at the time 'The Biden Plan.' But now Iraq is only discussed in obtuse and generic terms, as evidenced by the debates seen so far.Otherwise, here’s my take on how substantive was the discussion of foreign policy. It may sound repetitive to some of you, but I’ve tried to make my points more concise in the hope that some journalists would begin asking these questions:
The two presidential debates, as well as the vice-presidential debate, revealed the mediocrity of the discourse in the United States concerning critical national security issues such as Iraq, jihadism and instability across the region.
Here are three issues that went missing from the narrative:
1-What was the nature of the enemy that the United States military faced (and I believe has already defeated) in Iraq? What were the enemy’s goals, and who were its leaders?
Ending this war presumes that one would negotiate such an end with the opposing side. Neither presidential candidate has spelled out to the American people who this opposing side is supposed to be. America’s most tenacious and successful military foes in the last five years have been Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi and his acolytes. The ideology, and goals, they espouse are even more radical that those articulated by traditional jihadist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. The guerilla tactics and use of technology pioneered by the Zarqawists, as well as their novel recruitment and fundraising practices, will set its mark on world-wide jihad for a long time to come. Zarqawi’s ideological mutations—especially in regards to anti-Shia sectarianism—have already been adopted by other jihadists and have filtered into the Middle Eastern mainstream.
At the height of the insurgency in 2006, Zarqawi’s jihadists could claim 60 percent of statistical violence (even when counting ‘generic’ instances such as lobbing mortars), and they certainly can account for a much higher percentage of the truly dramatic and destabilizing acts of violence such as suicide bombings and high-value assassinations.
The clearest reflection of Zarqawi’s revolutionary changes in the very nature of jihadism is revealed in his successors’ establishment of the self-styled ‘Islamic State of Iraq.’ This was to be the state of caliphate, and its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi—no longer dismissed as a “fictitious character” according to U.S. military sources—is Islam’s newly-minted caliph.
The ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ is jihad’s most ambitious undertaking since their quest to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. It has been under-studied by U.S. analysts and scholars. The failure of this endeavor is massive blow to jihadist morale, and this blow was delivered by the U.S. military, together with Iraqi allies, over the last year.
Further reading from the Talisman Gate blog (October 6, 2008): Marking Second Anniversary, ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ Cites ‘Accomplishments’
2-Where do the jihadists go to after Iraq?
My short answer is Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Afghanistan is a regression for jihadists. The fight in Iraq placed them deep within the heart of the Middle East, where they’ve always wanted to be: close enough to hit Israel, and close enough to topple their hated regimes. After Falloujah, after the ‘Islamic State of Iraq,’ can the jihadists, and especially the newly radicalized ones, be expected to hike back to the caves of the Hindu Kush?
No. The jihadists need to hit the reset button after their defeat in Iraq, but that’s not going to happen in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is just not as ambitious, or as glamorous, of a destination. The stand-out foreign fighters who came to Iraq, both in terms of rank and file and in terms of mid-level leadership, have been the Syrians and the Saudis. I predict that each group will attempt to spark chaos—chaos that they can gradually expand upon—in their home countries. Both will use the seething hatred unleashed by anti-Shia (in the Syrian case, mostly anti-Alawite; in the Saudi case, anger at the licentiousness and ‘uppity-ness’ of the Shia minority in the oil-producing eastern region) sectarianism as a quick burning fuel to jump-start their ‘home-turf jihad’ as opposed to the ‘world-wide jihad’ that has marked jihadism, specifically its Al-Qaeda brand, since the mid-1990s.
The Syrian jihadists will gain an added benefit from using bases in an unstable and tense Lebanon for their ends. This is particularly true in northern Lebanon, where it may be relatively easy to spark Sunni-Alawite clashes that would erode the authority of the Lebanese state, and give the jihadists stature among the local population.
Further reading from the Talisman Gate blog (May 12, 2008): Rough Primer on Sunni-Alawite Divisions in Northern Lebanon
3-How can Iraq be prepared and groomed to become America’s ally in facing emerging challenges in the Middle East?
This is a question about what will be America’s ‘Worst-Case’ contingency plan over the next 10 to 15 years in the Middle East. U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, recently made comments (Sept. 28) that mark a complete break with the foreign policy and intelligence bureaucratic view of the Middle East: a democratic and stable Iraq may represent a dramatic and historic shift in the region, and America would be able to take credit for it.
Most of today’s Iraq analysis presupposes that Iraq is in tatters and the best one can hope for is to prevent it from completely unraveling. Such thinking was reflected in the panic that engulfed Iraq-watchers when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took the gamble of smashing the Iran-supported Shia militants across Iraq’s south and in Baghdad (March-June 2008). Many narratives were conjured up to explain why Maliki’s gambit turned out to be so successful—almost all of these narratives were dismissive in tone. The Iraqi Army has emerged from this test far more confident, and much more agile.
It is time to begin asking ‘What can Iraq do for America?’
Further reading from an Op-Ed in the New York Sun (November 1, 2007): A Paladin Gears Up for War