It took 45 years for a leading journalist like Harold Meyerson to ask why 58,193 Americans [as well as an estimated 2 million Vietnamese] died during the Vietnam War. How many years will it take for folks to wonder why 4,121 [as of July 15] Americans and more than a million Iraqis perished in Mesopotamia?
This comparative question is not raised often, but in light of recent pronouncements by the presumed Democratic and Republican candidates for the presidency of the US, it may be useful to ask it even if foreign policy issues are almost always less important than domestic concerns - dominated in 2008 by high energy prices and falling real estate values.
In an opinion piece published by The New York Times [and reproduced yesterday in Gulf News], Senator Barack Obama articulated his plan for Iraq, calling for a "phased redeployment of combat troops". He promised to end the war if he becomes president. Obama emphasised that "it was a grave mistake ... to be distracted from the fight against Al Qaida and the Taliban by invading a country that posed no imminent threat and had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks".
Senator John McCain, the probable Republican candidate, believed that Obama was pursuing a strategy of defeat. He argued that while he and Obama "agreed the Bush administration had pursued a failed strategy there", they fundamentally diverged on how to proceed. McCain preferred "a surge of troops and counterinsurgency to win the war", irrespective of costs, both human (American and Iraqi) as well as financial. At a time when recessions loomed throughout global markets, were endless commitments of borrowed money to a bottomless conflict, the wisest choice? Unlike President George W. Bush, and presumably McCain, Obama declared that Iraq was "not the central front in the war on terrorism", which was both true as well as incredibly courageous to proclaim. This forceful assertion stood in direct contradiction to claims made by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who opined that in the post 9/11 environment, she was "proud of the decision of this administration to overthrow Saddam Hussain". She continued that she was "proud of the liberation of 25 million Iraqis" though historians will long debate this contention.
Perceptions of victory, or of significant accomplishments in Iraq notwithstanding, Obama declared that he would make it absolutely clear that Washington sought no permanent bases in Iraq, even if future presidents may well confront such options. In fact, although the Bush Administration intended to sign a new Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi Government by July 31, this decision was quietly tabled. Truth be told, neither Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki nor any other government in Baghdad, enjoyed the legitimacy to grant such a lease because foreign troops would almost always be perceived as occupiers. While puppet regimes thrived throughout the region, none had the ability to eradicate high-level anti-American sentiments among Arab populations, which did not speak well for future American-Arab ties.
Of course, both Obama and McCain intended to pursue strategies that would help restore America's tarnished image around the globe, badly damaged during the Bush presidency. Today, few doubted the intrinsic capabilities of either candidate to improve the country's image at home and overseas, as a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll placed the Bush approval rating at a meekly 28 per cent. A whopping 69 per cent disapproved of the so-called leader of the free world, including 56 per cent who disliked him "strongly", with even higher negative numbers overseas as amply illustrated by Pew Research Centre data. It will eventually dawn on Bush that he earned his marks. Nevertheless, while Obama insisted that the "War for Iraq" diminished American security and that the current preference was "not a sound strategy for keeping America safe", all was not rosy for the Illinois senator.
Remarkably, the most recent New York Times/CBS News poll indicated that lingering concerns about Obama's readiness to handle international crises persisted within the electorate, and although he enjoyed an 8-point lead, this was not insurmountable in a contest when race was likely to play a leading role. Moreover, the latest controversy with the presumed satirical cover of The New Yorker magazine showed that Obama and his elegant wife were depicted as no more than terrorists in the Oval Office. The magazine's editor, David Remnick, believed that the cartoon was not critical, but too many subliminal messages, and some not so unintentional messages demonstrated how difficult the next few months may be for the Democrat.
The "War for Iraq" has distorted American foreign policy, cost it thousands of lives, tarnished its image and emptied its treasury. While both Obama and McCain needed to devise multi-pronged strategies to serve America, Iraq will hang around both of their necks for years to come.
It is better to raise now the horrible question as to whether dedicated men and women who are dying in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing so in vain - just like those who perished in Vietnam - rather than speak of lost lives as necessary to defend chimerical dreams. In fact, there was nothing in the current Iraq policy for the US to be "proud" of, which required an honest reassessment for the sake of regional peace and world stability.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is a commentator and author of several books on Gulf affairs.