Better Questions for Presidential Candidates

April 29, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in The Standard Times (New Bedford, MA) on April 29, 2007.

As political tides continue to turn against the Iraq war, Hillary Clinton’s opponents have highlighted her refusal to apologize for supporting it. It’s a fair critique, because the next American president will face a host of foreign‐​policy challenges while attempting to repair our post‐​Bush position in the world.

In their debate at South Carolina State University last week, top Democratic candidates exchanged barbs over authorizing the Iraq war, but their preoccupation with the vote itself obscured larger issues and provided candidates a neat way out of other hard questions they should be made to answer.

Whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or not, the fundamental post‐​war dynamic would have been the same. In 1999, General Anthony Zinni, then the head of Central Command, conducted an Iraq war game titled Desert Crossing, which assumed a deployment of 400,000 U.S. troops. Even at these levels — more consistent with counterinsurgency doctrine — he still came to a host of pessimistic conclusions.

Zinni determined that “the country could fragment along religious and/​or ethnic lines,” that “Iranian support for U.S. intervention … was critical to long‐​term success,” that “differing visions of a unified Iraq complicate” the post‐​war political prospects, and last but not least that “U.S. involvement could last for at least 10 years.”

“Why,” a reporter might ask a candidate, “did you not bring more attention to the requirements and dangers of occupying Iraq after the war?”

All of the candidates have refused to rule out the use of force to delay Iran’s nuclear program. Although some candidates may have left the option “on the table” in the hopes of strengthening America’s bargaining position on the diplomatic track, some appear to believe that military action would be a viable option should diplomacy fail.

Some observers have a rosy view of what such action would look like. Bill Kristol of the Weekly Standard has suggested that bombing might have the side benefit of causing the Iranian people to overthrow the government in Tehran, and Eli Lake of the New York Sun recently suggested that a bombing campaign against Iran “would be similar to Desert Fox,” the four‐​day bombing campaign against Iraq in 1998 that resulted in no U.S. casualties.

“What do you suspect the results, both positive and negative, of bombing Iran would be?”

In March 2006, two of America’s top international‐​relations professors published an essay in which they argued that there is an “Israel lobby” in the United States that works to tip U.S. foreign policy in Israel’s favor and to constrain debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East. The authors of the essay were accused of, among other offenses, anti‐​Semitism.

“Is it anti‐​Semitic to claim that there is an Israel lobby in the United States that attempts to influence U.S. foreign policy in Israel’s favor? Is it accurate?”

The concept of “democracy promotion” is a longstanding rhetorical component of U.S. foreign policy, but since 9/11 has taken on a different meaning and a different form. President Bush claims that in order to succeed in the war on terrorism, we must overturn the existing political order in the Islamic world, replacing authoritarian regimes with democracies. Since the war in Iraq has gone so roughly, and since the elections in both Iraq and the Palestinian territories have not gone as many in the West wanted, this thinking has been subject to severe criticism.

“Is promoting democracy in the Islamic world essential for victory in the war on terrorism? If so, what would be your strategy for doing so?”

The lessons of Iraq are important, and part of the campaign should involve determining whether the candidates have learned them. At the same time, focusing on that issue alone obscures many others that will have more bearing on U.S. policy in the years to come. The candidates are ready for the Iraq question — indeed, we already know their answers. What are their views on the questions above?

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