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The War in Iraq and the Presidential Election

On May 1st, 2003, American President George W Bush, wearing a flight suit, landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in a naval airplane to give the speech announcing the end of major combat operations in Iraq, less than two months after they had started. A large banner stating “Mission Accomplished” had been hung from the ship’s superstructure behind the President and the speech was broadcast nationwide.

Today, a person from 2003 would probably be surprised that the United States continues to have a strong military presence in Iraq with no clear timetable for withdrawal. Perhaps not coincidentally, since the war was declared over, the opinion of Americans concerning the occupation has pretty much flipped; the strong support at the beginning of the war has become equally strong opposition. What to do about Iraq has become a central issue in this year’s Presidential Election.

At the moment, three mainstream candidates are in contention: Arizona Senator John McCain has wrapped up the Republican nomination, to be formalized at the 2008 Republican Convention in early September in St. Paul, Minnesota; Illinois Senator Barack Obama and New York Senator Hillary Clinton continue to battle for the Democratic nomination. Senator McCain, from the same party as incumbent President Bush, promises that the U. S. will not leave Iraq until it is stable and, despite public opinion to the contrary, has no distinct plan for troop withdrawal.

On the other hand, both Senators Obama and Clinton have plans to begin the reduction of American forces on the ground in Iraq, and both promise to have American troops home with all expediency. However, conditions on the ground are likely to prevent a full American withdrawal; a civil war due to a lack of American presence would only further destabilize the Middle East. Contrary to prevailing American public opinion, the plan of each of this year’s presidential candidates will leave a large American presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

Before an examination of the Presidential candidates’ Iraq plans begins, it makes sense to gain an understanding of how exactly public opinion has shifted so strongly from supporting the war to opposing it. After the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, the American public gave President Bush a blank check in what was soon termed the “War on Terror. ” This war began with an invasion of Afghanistan and dismantling of the Taliban, the ruling sect that had allowed Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group who took credit for the 9/11 attacks, to live and train there.

Within months of the 9/11 attacks, both NATO and the United States had troops on the ground in Afghanistan, the Taliban had been largely defeated, and Al-Qaeda had mostly been driven out of the country. In the spring of 2002, the Bush administration began building its case for an invasion of Iraq. The reasons for invading Iraq were twofold. The Bush administration claimed that Saddam Hussein’s government had reconstituted its weapons of mass destruction program, which had been dismantled after the first Persian Gulf war in 1991.

They alleged that Hussein had attempted to purchase weapons-grade fissionable material and was beginning, once again, to manufacture chemical and biological weapons. When the United States went to the United Nations to ask for permission to use force to enforce sanctions that prohibited Iraq from controlling or manufacturing WMDs, Secretary of State Colin Powell famously held up a vial filled with anthrax, a powerful biological weapon.

The second argument for the invasion of Iraq was the belief that Iraq had ties to terrorist organizations, specifically with Al-Qaeda, and had intentions to supply terrorists with WMDs. The United States never received permission from the UN for the invasion; in fact, the resolution for permission was withdrawn from the Security Council before going to vote, though the U. S. Senate did approve the use of force in October 2002. On March 20, 2003, the invasion began. It has been over five years since combat in Iraq was declared over.

In that time, insurgencies, which began shortly after President Bush’s speech, against American and Iraqi troops have continued; a civil war has erupted; Saddam Hussein has been captured, tried, and hung; allegations of human rights abuses have been lowered on American soldiers; over $500 billion of taxpayers money has been spent on the war (Reuters); little evidence has been found to support the WMD claims made by the Bush administration against Saddam Hussein (Eland); and no expectation for a cessation in American involvement in Iraq has been established.

The insurgency in Iraq began once the invasion was over, the Iraqi army was disbanded and the local Iraqi population had looted much of Hussein’s infrastructure, including military armaments. These insurgencies have come from those loyal to Saddam, as well as religious extremists tied to other Middle East nations, specifically Iran and Syria. The continued armed conflicts are further exacerbated by the Mahdi Army, a Shi’ite paramilitary organization that has some ties with Iran. Most of the casualties of the insurgent fighting have been Iraqi civilians, rather than American soldiers, which makes the conflict very much a civil war.

American public support started to turn against American involvement in Iraq after the first report by the Iraqi Survey Group, entrusted with the job of finding the WMD programs and stockpiles believed to be in Iraqi possession, released its interim report in October, 2003, that asserted that it had not found any WMDs. Reports of abuses by American soldiers began to surface from Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in April 2004; included in these reports were pictures of American soldiers posing with nude Iraqi prisoners.

Since these reports were released, American public opinion has not been positive concerning the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. In May 2004, according to a poll by ABC News, 60% of Americans disapproved the way President Bush was handling Iraq (ABC News). In September 2004, the ISG released its final report, stating in no uncertain terms that Saddam Hussein had not reconstituted his WMD programs, although he did desire to once UN sanctions were lifted.

In November 2005, the Pentagon declassified documents showing that the man who insinuated that Saddam Hussein had made contact with Al-Qaeda operatives, former terrorist trainer Ibn al-Shaykh ai-Libi, had actually intentionally misled those debriefing him (Scheer). Since the beginning of 2006, public approval has not rise above 40% (ABCNews). It is probably true that Americans want out of Iraq as much for the ineptitude shown by President Bush and his administration as for the expressed desire to singularly bring home the troops.

It has become clear that the invasion was based on falsities presented to the American and world public and it seems unlikely that public favor would return for an American occupation as long as President Bush remains in the White House. Because of this political fact, each Presidential candidate must be extremely careful in how they shape their vision in Iraq. Up until the recent economic downturn, the Iraq war was seen as the most important issue of the election; while the economy has outdistanced other issues in the eyes of the public, Iraq is still easily the second most important issue in the election.

In terms of the Iraq war, candidates must focus on the complete removal of American troops or be able to convince the American public that American actions, and their affect on Iraq itself, will be categorically different under their stewardship. John McCain plans on doing the latter in his bid for the Presidency. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton plan on leaning towards the former. Against American public opinion, it seems likely that, despite the platforms of some, a quick removal of American forces is impossible.

Senator John McCain has maintained the necessity of staying the course in Iraq since before he announced his candidacy for the current presidential election. He began advocating a commitment to Iraq before the 2004 Presidential election. In September 2003 he wrote in The Washington Post that a “failure to make the necessary political and financial commitment to build the new Iraq could endanger American leadership in the world, empower our enemies and condemn Iraqis to renewed tyranny” (McCain).

McCain has long maintained that the only way the war in Iraq can be viewed as a victory is if the United States maintains its presence until a stable Iraqi democracy can subsist on its own. McCain’s Iraq plan features two main tenants: to increase security in Iraq and to increase domestic support for the war in the United States(“Strategy for Victory in Iraq”). It seems fairly obvious that domestic support for a continued occupation will not increase until obvious improvements occur in Iraq, so it makes sense to focus on what changes McCain will make to the policy in Iraq.

First and foremost, McCain wants to increase troop levels in Iraq, in order to provide better security and implement his counterinsurgency plan, which would focus on stationing American and Iraqi troops in overtaken insurgent strongholds. Currently, after engaging insurgents, American soldiers return to large bases in safer areas of Iraq; by keeping troops where the insurgents have been, the insurgents will theoretically be unable to return to their strongholds, as has happened in instances where victorious American troops have left insurgent areas, allowing their return.

The second benefit to an increased troop presence, according to McCain, would be an acceleration in the training of Iraqi police and security forces. With increased security, McCain would then begin to foster the growth of Iraqi political and economic infrastructure. To aid in this, he advocates creating an Army Adviser Corp, a group of “20,000 combat soldiers specially trained to aid friendly forces abroad, alongside Special Forces, civil affairs, military police and intelligence troops” (Prine).

Above anything else, one can expect McCain’s Iraq policy as President to be closer to his campaign promises than his Democratic adversaries. He says the United States will stay in Iraq and finish what it started. Obama and Clinton claim they will quickly end the conflict. While this is something they obviously wish to do, it will soon become clear that the chances of that happening are most likely slim. Unlike John McCain, Senator Barack Obama has made the campaign promise to start decreasing troop levels in Iraq upon his election to the Presidency.

Obama promises to bring home one to two brigades home a month upon taking the office, and will have all combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months (“Plan for Ending the War in Iraq”). During the gradual withdrawal, “Obama will engage representatives from all levels of Iraqi society – in and out of government – to seek a new accord on Iraq’s Constitution and governance” (“Plan for Ending the War in Iraq”). Obama also makes clear his intention to engage the United Nations in these discussions, a body whose influence has waned in Iraq since its headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in the late summer of 2003.

The last facet of his plan will focus on diplomacy with Iraq’s neighbors, to encourage them to help, rather than hinder, Iraq’s progress as the first true Middle Eastern Democracy. The aforementioned plan is the one Senator Obama currently espouses on his campaign website as well as the campaign trail. Obama’s original plan did not call for a rigid time-line for withdrawal, but rather a flexible one that allowed for contingencies based upon the conditions in Iraq itself. Members of Obama’s campaign staff have recently conceded that Obama’s Iraq policy is certainly not set in stone.

Foreign policy adviser Susan Rice has told reporters that Obama plans on re-evaluating his Iraq policy upon gaining office; former adviser Samantha Power has admitted Obama’s plan is a “best-case scenario” (Oinounou). Another of Obama’s advisers, Colin Kahl of the Center for a New American Security, believes “the U. S. should aim to transition to a sustainable over-watch posture (of perhaps 60,000–80,000 forces) by the end of 2010 (although the specific time-lines should be the byproduct of negotiations and conditions on the ground)” (Lake).

What seems obvious is that Senator Obama will attempt to balance the desire of the American people to remove themselves from the problems of Iraq with the necessity for both American and international security to cure the problems that continue there. It would not be surprising for Obama to begin bringing troops home, only to cease the withdrawal if the situation in Iraq were to become less hostile to an American presence. What is clear is that a multitude of scenarios would precipitate a different response from an Obama White House than that which he promises on the campaign trail.

Not all of these contingencies would follow prevailing public opinion. To brutally honest, Hillary Clinton’s Iraq platform is very similar to that of Senator Obama. Clinton promises to begin a troop withdrawal during her first days in office, by ordering the Pentagon to begin drawing up plans for a withdrawal (“Ending the War in Iraq”). Clinton, like Obama, would also work to strengthen security in Iraq by continuing to train defense and police forces, while also increasing humanitarian aid to both governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Finally, also in a similar vein to the Obama plan, Clinton plans on convening a summit between America’s core allies, other global powers, and the Middle Eastern countries bordering Iraq; while not explicitly stated on her website, one would also assume that Iraq would be represented at this summit as well. The purpose of the summit would revolve around three specific goals: encouraging Iraq’s neighbors to not interfere in their internal civil war, mediating differences between Iraq’s internal factions, and to encourage nations to hold by their commitments to provide money for the rebuilding of Iraq’s infrastructure.

Clinton provides no drop-dead date for a complete American removal from Iraq. In fact, critics of her plan point out the likelihood for a large continuing American presence in Iraq. According to Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, “She’s more vague about the number of troops she anticipates being there at the end, as well as what their responsibilities would be; under Clinton’s plan it would be hard to imagine having fewer than 40,000 troops [remaining]” (Renner).

Clinton’s plan buckles under the same weight that plagues Obama’s. Eight months before either would take office, it is impossible to discern what each would be facing in Iraq. It is even more difficult to know what the status on the ground could be in 2010, when the removal of troops would become more noticeable on the ground. When looking at the situation as a whole, it seems highly unlikely that any of the Presidential candidates can pull the United States totally from the quagmire that has developed in the new Iraq with any certain speed.

To give John McCain credit, he has said that he will not attempt to leave until Iraq is secure enough to begin to function on its own. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton most likely do not have the luxury of taking this realist line of thinking. With the Democratic Primaries continuing, any weakening on a promise to get out of Iraq would certainly damage either candidate in the eyes of their liberal constituencies, who are more inclined to desire a quick exit from Iraq than the public at large.

Once the nomination process is over, it will be interesting to see if either Obama or Clinton change their tune on Iraq, moving away from the promises of an immediate exit, which certainly takes advantage of the current public opinion, to focusing on a plan that can get the United States out of Iraq quickly but that ensures that Iraq itself does not erupt into a bloodier civil war or a terrorist state. Whether Iraq was really a part of the war on terror before the American invasion, it certainly is one today.What should be of the utmost importance to the candidates, and to Americans, is to ensure that it does not continue to be a part of it.


ABC News/Washington Post Poll. “Do you approve or disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq? ” September 4-7, 2007. Retrieved from http://www. pollingreport. com/iraq2. htm Eland, Ivan. “The Weapons of Mass Destruction Threat is Greatly Exaggerated. ” Opposing Viewpoints: National Security. David M. Haugen. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2007. From Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center.

“Ending the War in Iraq. ” hillaryclinton. com Retrieved from http://www. hillaryclinton. com/issues/iraq/ Lake, Eli. “Obama Adviser Calls for 60,000-80,000 U. S. Troops To Stay in Iraq Through 2010. ” New York Sun. New York: April 4, 2008. Retrieved from http://www2. nysun. com/article/74207 McCain, John. “We Can’t Quit Iraq, So We Must Push Harder. ” Washington Post. Newsday. New York: September 3, 2003. pg A29. Retrieved from ProQuest. Oinounou, Mosheh. “Clinton goes on offensive over Iraq war policy. ” Foxnews. com. April 9, 2008. Retrieved from:

http://elections. foxnews. com/2008/04/09/clinton-goes-on-offense-over-iraq-war-policy/ “Plan for Ending the War in Iraq. ” barackobama. com. Retrieved from http://www. barackobama. com/issues/iraq/ Prine, Carl. “Presidential candidates split on war in Iraq. ” Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Pittsburgh: April 20, 2008. Retrieved from http://www. pittsburghlive. com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/cityregion/s_563353. html Renner, Matt and Maya Schenwar. “Clinton’s Iraq Plan Makeover. ” Truthout. com: March 25, 2008 Retrieved from http://www. truthout. org/docs_2006/032508R.

shtml Reuters. “U. S. CBO estimates $2. 4 trillion long-term war costs. ” Reuters. com: October 24, 2007 Retrieved from http://www. reuters. com/article/politicsNews/idUSN2450753720071024 Scheer, Robert. “Iraq Never Trained al Qaea to Use Weapons of Mass Destruction. ” Current Controversies: Weapons of Mass Destruction. Michael Logan. Detroit: Greenhaven Press, 2006. From Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center. “Strategy for Victory in Iraq. ” johnmccain. com. Retrieved from http://www. johnmccain. com/Informing/Issues/fdeb03a7-30b0-4ece-8e34-4c7ea83f11d8. htm

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