Wednesday, May 7, 2008

US presidents-to-be in denial: McCain, Obama and Clinton silent on Iraq exit

US presidents-to-be in denial: McCain, Obama and Clinton silent on Iraq exit

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As soon as it was clear that the presidential primaries would be the news story of the year in the US, Iraq was dropped by the media. The occupation and the campaign for the presidential nominations were de-linked almost from the start. So we don’t know what the potential candidates would do in Iraq. But pulling troops out doesn’t seem to be an option for any of them.

By Dahr Jamail

Amman, April 2008: the UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes, said he wanted “to highlight the gravity of the humanitarian situation in Iraq” (1).

New Hampshire, January 2008: the Republican presidential candidate John McCain said: “President Bush has talked about our staying [in Iraq] for 50 years, maybe 100. We’ve been in Japan for 60 years, in South Korea for 50 years or so. That would be fine with me as long as Americans are not being injured or harmed or killed” (2).

Baghdad, April 2008: in an interview with Al-Jazeera, an Iraqi government employee said: “There is no improvement in Baghdad on the security level. All of it is getting worse. We hear about it on TV, but on the ground we see nothing. No services, no security in the streets” (3).

Infrastructure in Iraq is currently far worse than it was under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, which overlapped with nearly 13 years of severe economic sanctions. The average Iraqi household has fewer than three hours of electricity a day, at least 40% of people have no access to safe drinking water, and unemployment is between 40% and 70% (4).

What worsens these hardships is the complete lack of security. The propaganda accompanying the surge of US troops claimed a dramatic decrease in violence, but facts indicate otherwise. The ministries of the interior, defence and health in Iraq said 33% more Iraqis were killed in February than in January. In March the figure was 31% higher than in February. In April, because of the debacle of the offensive by US-backed Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki against the militia of Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, the numbers will increase again.

The UN figure of displaced Iraqis is 4.9 million, and nearly half of those have fled the country. A UNHCR/IPSOS survey of Iraqi refugees in Syria in March found that only 4% were planning to return to Iraq. Oxfam International claims another 4 million are in serious need of emergency aid without which they will probably die. On 12 April the Iraqi parliament urged the government to reallocate $5bn earmarked for investment in infrastructure and services to social welfare programmes and a functional food rationing system for nearly 2.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).

A study in The Lancet in October 2006 estimated the number of Iraqis who died as a direct result of invasion and occupation to be 655,000 or 2.5% of the population. This figure (now very out of date), plus the number of displaced Iraqis and those in need of emergency aid, means nearly 10 million of 27 million citizens are dead or displaced or living in the worst conditions (5).

Silence is censorship

Yet the three US presidential contenders, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain, have been mostly silent on the Iraq issue, with tacit support from the media. Their silence is censorship.

In April the New York Sun reported that Colin Kahl, an adviser to Barack Obama’s campaign and its day-to-day coordinator of the working group on Iraq, recommended that the US maintain between 60,000 and 80,000 troops in Iraq to serve in an “over-watch role” until 2010. Post publication, Kahl clarified that “this has absolutely zero to do with the campaign” (6).

Obama, who, on his past record, is believed to have the best policy on military withdrawal from Iraq, does not seem to intend to end the occupation. Susan Rice, a senior foreign affairs adviser to the Obama campaign, reiterated what we have heard from Bush administration officials over the past five years: that the number of US troops Obama would keep in Iraq “depends on the circumstances on the ground”.

Obama emphatically cautioned in October 2002: “Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbours and even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences” and “an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida” (7).

Today he not only refrains from calling for total withdrawal – he does not address the removal of the “enduring” US military bases in Iraq and the embassy scheduled to open there this month. This is the size of the Vatican, has superthick walls, electrical and water plants, gymnasium and the largest swimming pool in the country. It cost $740m, has room for at least 1,000 “government employees”, a school for their children, bunkers, two helipads, yoga studios, fast-food outlets and shopping malls.

Other “enduring bases” remain, four of them along the lines of Camp Victory near Baghdad airport, which is twice the size of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, already one of the largest US overseas bases built since Vietnam. Camp Anaconda near Balad houses more than 20,000 troops, over 250 aircraft, thousands of civilian contractors, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut and Starbucks outlets.

A worse prospect

For those who hope the election will bring a US policy change in Iraq, Hillary Clinton is a worse prospect. She has consistently refused to promise withdrawal of US forces from Iraq by the end of her first term, 2013, if elected. On 17 March Clinton outlined her plans in a telling speech at the George Washington University. While she did call for a gradual withdrawal of US combat brigades, she refused to apologise for her 2002 vote authorising the invasion. Not once has she acknowledged the illegality of that move nor explained claims she made then about Iraq’s military status and ties to al-Qaida. She continued to be a strong proponent of the occupation until she found herself vying with Obama for the votes of a populace now against the occupation; and she says she is willing to withdraw US troops from Iraq.

Clinton attempts to deflect attention from her own position by blaming President George Bush. “It has been five years this week since our president took us to war in Iraq,” she said in the same speech, sidestepping the fact that Bush was able to launch the invasion only because Clinton, along with a minority of congressional Democrats plus a Republican majority, provided the votes necessary to invade and occupy Iraq. Clinton justified her vote by claiming that Saddam had “given aid, comfort and sanctuary to terrorists, including al-Qaida members” and that the invasion was “in the best interests of our nation”.

During her only trip to Iraq in February 2005, a helicopter took Clinton to the Green Zone because the highway between Baghdad International Airport and the city was so dangerous. Scores of Iraqis and at least one US soldier were killed during her visit, yet she insisted that the occupation was “functioning quite well”. Later that month on NBC’s Meet the Press she said it would be a mistake to withdraw US forces immediately from Iraq, or set a timetable for withdrawal, because “we don’t want to send a signal to insurgents, to the terrorists, that we are going to be out of here at some, you know, date certain”. This echoes the Bush administration and John McCain.

In November 2005 Clinton denounced representative John Murtha’s call for the withdrawal of US forces as “a big mistake”. In 2006 senator John Kerry sponsored an amendment that would have required the redeployment of US forces from Iraq. Clinton voted against it. She is now is offering to withdraw some of the troops but is determined that the US should indefinitely maintain its “military as well as political mission” in Iraq.

Like the Bush administration, Clinton rationalises this as an imperative to offset Iranian influence in the region, protect the Kurdish minority, support the Iraqi military and prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state, all of which would be false goals for anyone aware of the situation in Iraq. Last year on ABC’s This Week, she offered a more viable reason: “We have to protect our civilian employees, our embassy that will be there” (8).

Clinton sounds contradictory when attacking her Democrat co-nominee Obama, who opposed the invasion from the beginning. Just what did she mean by: “Now, my Democratic opponent talks a great deal about a speech he gave in 2002. He is asking us to judge him by his words, and words can be powerful, but only if the speaker translates them into action and solutions. Senator Obama holds up his original opposition to the war on the campaign trail, but he didn’t start working aggressively to end the war until he started running for president. So when he had a chance to act on his speech, he chose silence instead” (9).

Extensive lobbying

According to Dr Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco: “Obama did a lot more than give a speech: he gave interviews, lobbied members of Congress and made a series of other statements in which he warned of the violent sectarian and ethnic divisions which could emerge following a US invasion and occupation, the risks of a long-term US military commitment, and the dangerous precedent of giving a carte blanche for a pre-emptive war” (10).

To his credit, in January 2007 Obama introduced legislation “to responsibly end the war in Iraq, with a phased withdrawal of troops engaged in combat operations” and has promised to take “immediate steps to confront the ongoing humanitarian disaster”.

It has not been an easy task to get a clear idea through the media of each candidate’s position on Iraq or infer the policies they intend to implement there. Norman Solomon, columnist and founder director of the Institute for Public Accuracy, a national consortium of policy researchers and analysts, told me: “Whatever tendencies existed in the US media in 2006 to look toward a reasonably swift withdrawal of US troops have largely dissipated since then and the presidential contenders who remain, with a real chance to become president, are not too willing to run counter to the overall media terrain.”

A study carried out by the Project for Excellence in Journalism showed that by autumn 2007 media attention had shifted from the occupation of Iraq to the presidential campaign, de-linking the two. Reportage of the occupation fell sharply around the time that the 2008 presidential campaign emerged as the top story.

This works to the advantage of Arizona senator John McCain, the most unambiguous about his pro-occupation stand. Aboard his campaign plane McCain told reporters in April: “We fought a war with Japan and Germany. Afterwards we maintained a military presence there, which we are doing today. We fought a war in Korea, we maintained a military presence in Korea, which we are doing to this day.” Jumbling time, space and reality, he concluded: “The first Gulf war, we threw Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, and we have a military presence there to this day” (11).

McCain also decried Obama for lack of experience and knowhow about occupation: “So he... hasn’t read or doesn’t understand the history of this country in warfare, and the way that we secure alliances and secure the peace, that is through military government-to-government agreements that call for United States presence and mutual defence. Not only in that country itself, but also in the region... it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of history and how we’ve maintained national security, and what we need to do in the future to maintain our security in the face of the transcendent challenge of radical Islamic extremism.”

Spin cycle

Solomon points out: “The structural disconnects of accountability and the shortage of functional democracy in the United States together cause a large gap between popular sentiment and US foreign policy. The two wheels are spinning in somewhat different directions; the teeth of their gears are only partially meshing. The war machine is able to move forward with little functional hindering from popular opinion. In part this has to do with the ongoing impacts of the capacity of pro-war spinners to use the levers of media to constrict what seem to be viable political options.”

This explains why the candidates are able to edge closer to the November election without being taken to task on their policy. Solomon said: “Conventional media wisdom feeds on itself. What a lot of US journalists ‘know’ is what other journalists are saying, and so the spin cycle goes. Corporate media coverage is anyhow in sync with the range of opinion heard most often from Republican and Democratic leaders in Washington. News outlets say the war is receding as a political issue; when the candidates say less about the war, journalists point to them saying less as evidence that the war is receding as a political issue.”

The US doesn’t want to be in Iraq – that is, 65% of actual people in the US oppose the occupation – yet Obama, Clinton and McCain march towards the election with the media not challenging their ambivalent positions on Iraq. As for the Iraqis – if any one of those three is listening – a recent BBC/IPSOS poll in Iraq showed more than 70% of Iraqis oppose the continuation of the occupation, while local polls found 92% of Iraqis oppose it.


Dahr Jamail is a journalist and author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2007


(1) “Top UN official highlights gravity of humanitarian situation”, International Regional Information Network, 4 April 2008.

(2) Derry, New Hampshire, 3 January 2008.

(3) “Fresh Fighting Erupts in Iraq”, Al-Jazeera English website, 16 April 2008.

(4) “Rising to the Humanitarian Challenge in Iraq”, Oxfam International, July 2007.

(5) Gilbert Burnham, Riyadh Lafta, Shannon Doocy, Les Roberts, “Mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq: a cross-sectional cluster sample survey”, The Lancet, 11 October 2006.

(6) Eli Lake, “Obama Adviser Calls for Troops To Stay in Iraq Through 2010”, New York Sun, 4 April 2008.

(7) Barack Obama, 2 October 2002, www.barackobama.com

(8) http://abcnews.go.com/Video/playerI ...

(9) Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 17 March 2008, www.hillaryclinton.com

(10) Stephen Zunes, “Clinton’s GWU Iraq Speech,” Foreign Policy in Focus, 25 March 2008.

(11) “McCain, Obama Spar Over Spending 100 Years in Iraq”, FoxNews.com, 1 April 2008.

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