Obama's Missed Opportunity

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Foreign Policy in Focus

Obama's Missed Opportunity

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama missed a number of key opportunities during the presidential foreign policy debate on September 26 to challenge the dangerous and reckless foreign policies of Republican nominee John McCain.

Obama did remind viewers that he strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq. He pointed out that the invasion created a tragic situation in that country that McCain - who vociferously supported the invasion and defends his decision to this day - now claims he's better qualified to redress. Yet, in what was perhaps his most stunning failure of the evening, the Democratic nominee effectively conceded McCain's claim that President George W. Bush's "troop surge" in Iraq - long advocated by the Republican nominee and opposed by Obama - brought about the dramatic reduction of violence in that country in recent months.

In reality, a shift in the alignment of internal Iraqi forces and the tragic de facto partitioning of Baghdad into sectarian enclaves contributed more to lowering the death toll, and the current relative equilibrium is probably temporary. The decision by certain Sunni tribal militias that had battled U.S. forces to turn their weapons against al-Qaeda-related extremists took place before the announcement of the surge, and militant opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr's unilateral ceasefire resulted from internal Shia politics rather than any U.S. actions.

Nor did Obama raise questions over McCain's assertion that Iraq, as a result of the U.S. invasion and occupation, was well on its way to becoming a "stable ally." McCain's claims of stability are questionable. There's an ongoing conflict between the two groups that the United States depends on to maintain stability - the Shia-led government and the Sunni militias of the Awakening Council. In addition, there are ongoing attacks by Sunni extremists and a continuing risk that the radical Shia Mahdi Army will once again end its ceasefire.

Nor should the United States consider the Iraqi government an "ally," given that the two largest parties in the ruling coalition have historically allied themselves with Iran. During Saddam's rule, Iran recognized the largest party now in government, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (then known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq), as Iraq's government-in-exile, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard organized and trained the Council's militia - known as the Badr Corps - which fought on Iran's side during the Iran-Iraq War. The Iraqi government identifies far more with the ruling Iranian clerics and other Shia movements than with the United States or with America's traditional Middle Eastern allies. For example, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki strongly sided with Hezbollah in the 2006 conflict with Israel.

Falsehoods Unchallenged

A glaring failure of Obama's during the debate was his unwillingness to counter some of McCain's demonstrably false statements. On no less than three occasions during the debate, for instance, the Republican nominee claimed that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had threatened to "wipe Israel off the map." In reality, Ahmadinejad never said that. That idiom does not even exist in the Persian language. The Iranian president was quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini from more than 20 years earlier when, in a statement largely ignored at the time, he said that "the regime occupying Jerusalem should vanish from the pages of time." While certainly an extreme and deplorable statement, the actual quote's emphasis on the Israeli "regime" rather than the country itself and its use of an intransitive makes the statement far less threatening than McCain made it sound.

McCain even claimed that Ahmadinejad "is now in New York, talking about the extermination of the state of Israel, of wiping Israel off the map." In reality, in response to a reporter's question while in New York to attend the opening of this year's UN General Assembly session, Ahmadinejad used the analogy of the Soviet Union disappearing from the map. In other words, as with his previous clarifications that McCain deliberately ignored, the Iranian president was calling for Israel's dissolution as a state, not the country's physical destruction. McCain, however, unchallenged by Obama, was trying to make Iran appear to be a greater and more imminent threat than it actually is.

When McCain criticized Obama for his refusal to support the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which urged the Bush administration to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a "terrorist organization," Obama conceded that he indeed believed they were "a terrorist organization. I've consistently said so." Ironically, even the Bush administration has been unwilling to designate the entire Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group, which they correctly recognized as an irresponsibly sweeping characterization of the largest branch of Iran's armed forces. Despite congressional pressure, the Bush administration only designated the al-Quds Force - a sub-unit of the Revolutionary Guards that has indeed engaged in terrorist operations, but doesn't always operate with the full knowledge and consent of the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards or even Iran's central government - as a terrorist group.

In another falsehood during the debate, McCain defended his support for Pervez Musharraf's dictatorship in Pakistan by insisting that "there was a failed state in Pakistan when Musharraf came to power. Everybody who was around then, and had been there and knew about it, knew that it was a failed state." While the democratically elected civilian government of Nawaz Sharif was certainly corrupt and inept in many respects at the time Musharraf staged his 1999 coup, Pakistan didn't fit the usual definition of a "failed state." This term is generally reserved for countries experiencing a near-total collapse of order and central authority, such as Somalia, Afghanistan, and such West African countries as Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s. Again, Obama failed to call McCain on this rewriting of history.

Other Misleading Statements Unchallenged

Obama even failed to challenge McCain's statement that "the Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council" against Iran's ongoing refusal to abide my edicts of the International Atomic Energy Agency. In fact, the Russian government agreed to support a U.S.-sponsored resolution that very day, which included the toughest language to date, to force Iran to abide by legally binding Security Council edicts.

McCain then launched into his proposal for the formation of what he referred to as a "league of democracies" to bypass the UN system due to the alleged failure of the Security Council to enforce its resolutions, such as those targeting Iran's nuclear program. In response, Obama could have pointed out that the United States has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1172, which calls on India and Pakistan to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and their long-range missiles. Or that the United States has blocked enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Or that the United States has blocked the Security Council from adopting a resolution calling for a nuclear weapons-free zone for the entire Middle East. Or that, over the past 40 years, the United States has vetoed more Security Council resolutions than Russia and all other members of the UN Security Council combined. But Obama failed to do so.

Obama also failed to challenge McCain's dubious statement that "Iranians are putting the most lethal IEDs into Iraq which are killing young Americans" and that "there are special groups in Iran coming into Iraq and are being trained in Iran." Despite repeated claims to this effect by both McCain and the Bush administration, they haven't put forward any credible evidence to support them. Obama also failed to point out that the vast majority of U.S. casualties in Iraq have come from attacks by anti-Iranian Sunni groups, and that the political movements in Iran most closely allied with Iraq are part of the U.S.-backed government. Nor did he remind listeners that McCain had earlier made the ludicrous claim that the Iranians were bringing al-Qaeda forces into Iran for training and sending them back into Iraq to kill Americans, something that McCain himself eventually acknowledged was false.

When the Republican nominee characterized Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili as a "great young president," Obama could have pointed out that Saakashvili's disastrous decision to launch a massive assault against South Ossetia prompted the devastating Russian attacks on his country. Doing so would have enabled Obama to defend himself from McCain's criticism during the debate that Obama was wrong to have initially appealed to both sides "to show restraint" and that he should have instead placed all the blame on the Russian side for their illegitimate and disproportionate counter-attack. Obama could also have noted that Saakashvili responded to antigovernment protests within the Georgian capital of Tbilisi late last year with severe repression, shutting down independent media and detaining opposition leaders. Human Rights Watch criticized Saakashvili's government for using "excessive" force against protesters and the International Crisis Group warned of growing authoritarianism in the country. Obama might have then been able to ask McCain what makes Saakashvili so "great" in his eyes and why McCain retains as his chief foreign policy advisor someone who served as the leading paid lobbyist for Saakashvili's government.

Hawkishness Unchallenged

The hawkish approach of both Obama in particular and the Democratic party overall hampered his ability to more effectively challenge McCain during the debate on several key issues. For example, Obama couldn't challenge McCain's calls for increasing Bush's already bloated military budget since Obama and the Democratic platform also calls for increasing the military budget. Most Americans are unaware that the United States, at less than 4% of the world's population, accounts for approximately half of the world's military spending. Military-related spending already accounts for a full 54% of the discretionary U.S. federal budget. Indeed, the only criticism during the debate regarding excessive Pentagon spending came from McCain, who challenged the waste caused by the cost-plus formula regularly awarded to military contractors.

When McCain insisted that the United States pursue a highly provocative policy of bringing Georgia into NATO, thereby risking embroiling the United States in the complex armed ethnic conflicts of the volatile Caucasus region, Obama largely agreed with the Republican nominee. He said that the United States should insist that Georgia be able to join NATO and that NATO "should have a membership action plan immediately to start bringing them in."

Obama couldn't challenge McCain's call to send more troops to Afghanistan because Obama himself has called for increasing U.S. troop strength in that country. To his credit, Obama has called for holding the Afghan government to greater accountability, curbing the poppy trade, and dealing more forcefully with Pakistan, which has provided support and sanctuary for Taliban fighters. Yet the reality on the ground in Afghanistan contradicts the shared assumption of the two candidates that additional forces would stabilize that country. The U.S.-led war has worsened the security situation and the American bombing of civilian areas has led to a popular backlash that has strengthened the Taliban.

Flawed Logic Unchallenged

Obama also failed to fully challenge McCain's flawed logic on several points, such as his claim that Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would pose an "existential threat" to Israel. While nuclear weapons controlled by any state can theoretically be an existential threat to anybody, the Iranians surely recognize that, given Israel's massive nuclear deterrent capability, any such attack would be suicidal. If Iran indeed does have ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons, they would most likely be designed to deter threatened Israeli and American attacks. It's also noteworthy that, while both expressed alarm at a hypothetical Iranian attack on Israel, neither expressed any concern about a far more plausible Israeli attack on Iran.

Similarly, Obama didn't challenge McCain's claim that Iranian possession of nuclear weapons would lead other countries in the region to "feel [a] compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well." Obama could have pointed out that Israel's procurement of nuclear weapons nearly 40 years ago had not led to any other Middle Eastern countries acquiring nuclear weapons, nor had Pakistan's procurement of nuclear weapons in the 1990s - after India already joined the nuclear club - led additional countries in the region to develop nuclear weapons either. Instead, Obama conceded the point, claiming that a nuclear Iran would indeed "create an environment in which you could set off an arms race in this Middle East."

Obama also gave a surprisingly weak retort to McCain's preposterous claims that meeting with a foreign leader would be "saying they've probably been doing the right thing" and it would "legitimize their illegal behavior." Obama could have pointed out that Bush and other U.S. presidents - as well as McCain himself - have met with foreign leaders who have also engaged in severe repression against their citizens and engaged in illegal behavior.

If Obama expects to defeat John McCain, who indeed has more foreign policy experience, he must be more willing to challenge his opponent's record. McCain is in fact extremely vulnerable in the foreign policy realm. Obama, however, must be more rigorous in pointing out their differences and more effective in challenging McCain's weaknesses.

Stephen Zunes

Stephen Zunes is a Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, where he serves as coordinator of the program in Middle Eastern Studies. Recognized as one the country’s leading scholars of U.S. Middle East policy and of strategic nonviolent action, Professor Zunes serves as a senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy in Focus project of the Institute for Policy Studies, an associate editor of Peace Review, a contributing editor of Tikkun, and co-chair of the academic advisory committee for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

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