Sunday, September 05, 2004

Election 2004: Issue #6 (Assessing the “War on Terror”- The first in a two-part series)

Despite the fact that many serious domestic issues currently face the country- a record federal deficit, the first presidency in 70 years to experience a net loss of jobs, a host of pressing environmental needs, a record number of Americans without basic health insurance, the looming retirement of the “baby-boomers,” as well as the effort by the religious-right to deny all legal rights to gays- for better or worse, this election is poised to be hyper-focused on issues of war and terrorism. This is certainly how the Bush administration wants to frame the election since they are understandably wary of pointing to the domestic front as evidence of their successful leadership. Even though Kerry plans to spend a large portion of the remaining two months trying to shift the focus to the domestic agenda, his emphasis on his service in Vietnam has contributed to the narrow state of the national debate.

If George Bush wants to the election to be a referendum on his handling of the “war on terror” then it is only sensible to begin by looking precisely at what he has done and accomplished on this front in various parts of the world.

1. Afghanistan

There are very few who disagree with the decision to invade Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Queda and to destroy the Taliban. The state was not only actively harboring the terrorists who attacked us but it was one of the most despotic regimes in the world. The execution of the war and its aftermath, however, are open to criticism. Almost three years after the war, much of the country is under the control of warlords and both the Taliban and Al Queda are regrouping. Perhaps more significantly, the U.S. relied heavily on members of the “Northern Alliance” to pursue Bin Laden and his followers throughout the caves of Tora Bora and the most senior leadership escaped. Subsequently, thousands of Special Forces were transferred from Afghanistan to Iraq in preparation for the second of Bush’s wars. It is reasonable to conclude that the military dimension of the war has not been entirely successful. However, national elections are scheduled in Afghanistan this fall, the first in the country’s history, and it remains to be seen whether they will go as planned and help to change the unstable dynamics of the country by conferring additional legitimacy on the central government. No doubt the country’s future looks more promising than under the Taliban.

Overall Assessment: Mixed

2. North Korea

North Korea is controlled by arguably the most bizarre and enigmatic leader in the world. The country is extremely dangerous because of its estrangement from the international community, coupled with miserable economic conditions and one of the most dangerous militaries in the world, complete with nuclear weapons. Fears that the regime will try to sell nuclear secrets or materials are not overblown, and must be taken extremely seriously. Although successive agreements between U.S. presidential administrations and North Korea have endured for years, they all have eventually broken down as North Korea has tried to cheat in order to extract more concessions as a form of blackmail. While this situation is highly undesirable, it has helped to contain North Korea since its military capabilities makes it almost inconceivable to consider military options. Shortly after 9/11 Bush included North Korea as a member of the “axis of evil” and broke off any direct bi-lateral negotiations. In the interim, North Korea has restarted its nuclear program and experts say that it may have built as many as half a dozen new nuclear warheads. It is unambiguous that North Korea is more dangerous now than in 2000 and the Bush administration has essentially no workable policy to contain this growing threat.

Overall Assessment: Failure

3. Iran

It is no secret that Iran is actively trying to develop nuclear weapons, which would dramatically shift the balance of power in the Middle East and threaten Israel. The Israelis unilaterally bombed nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and they state unequivocally that they will not allow a sworn enemy of Israel to become a nuclear power in the region (despite their own nuclear arsenal). Recently, Iran has been sanctioned by the International Atomic Energy Agency for trying to reprocess nuclear fuel in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. has called for U.N. sanctions against Iran and is also encouraging European nations to take a stronger stance against the Iranian regime. This is a very serious issue that may very well involve future military action given how adamant the Iranians are about acquiring nuclear weapons and how justifiably opposed the Israelis and the U.S. are to such a scenario. By removing Saddam from power we removed Iran’s greatest enemy in the region and with our military already over-extended it appears as if the Iranians are trying to take advantage of our compromised state. It remains to be seen whether a Shia majority-ruled government in Iraq (if that happens) will weaken or strengthen Iran’s position since it will be accompanied by large numbers of U.S. forces.

Overall Assessment: Mixed

4. The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the world’s most notorious and long-standing, contributes to so much of the Islamic fundamentalist rage directed against the West. Surprisingly, until the bus bombing this last week it had barely made the headlines for months. In 2002 Bush pledged to make the “Peace Process” one of his highest priorities and reiterated his call for a Palestinian state by the year 2005. In the subsequent years the administration hasn’t sent any major delegations to the region, has provided only weak rhetorical support for the “Roadmap,” and has remained conspicuously silent while Israel continues to build settlements in the West Bank. Given Yassir Arafat’s intransigence and his inability to control the Palestinian militants, Bush’s failure to follow through on his commitments is somewhat understandable. However, given the importance of this conflict to the overall perception of America in the Muslim world, it is ultimately unacceptable. After 9/11 Bush had perhaps the largest amount of political capital at his disposal of any president in American history, and yet he chose not to use almost any of it to settle this serious conflict that is at the root of so much anti-American animosity.

Overall Assessment: Failure

5. Iraq

The Iraq War will no doubt be one of the major, if not THE major, issue of the election. Our toppling of Saddam and the subsequent nation-building campaign has so far cost $200 billion, 1,000 American lives and more than 7,000 wounded, the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis, both civilian and military, and helped alienate much of the world. The occupation has been fraught with serious allegations of corruption, military miscalculations, the prison abuse scandal, and no WMD or links to Al Queda have been found. It is unambiguous that Iraq under Saddam did not pose an imminent threat to America. That being said, Saddam was one of the most ruthless dictators in the world who was directly responsible for invading two countries and killing hundreds of thousands of his own people (putting aside the fact that we supported him during the height of his barbarity). The promise of a democratic and free Iraq in the heart of the Middle East has the potential to transform this region of the world for the better and to reduce the hopelessness that contributes to Islamic terrorism. Elections are planned for January but currently an increasing portion of the region surrounding Baghdad is controlled by Baathists, Al Sadr’s militia has not disarmed, and the Kurds in the North are still wary of the Shia majority, so the potential for increased civil conflict is high. It is not apparent whether the Bush administration has a plan to deal with some of the worst-case scenarios. Unsurprisingly, this situation is too volatile to predict with any accuracy and at this point the promise of freedom and democracy in the heart of the Middle East exists only on paper.

Overall Assessment: Mixed.

Stay tuned- I will address Kerry’s and Bush’s stance on how to move forward in dealing with these on-going conflicts and hot-spots.



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