Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 March - 2 April 2008
Issue No. 890
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

The good, the bad and the liar

Osama, Obama: what's in a name? On Iraq, Clinton has more in common with McCain, writes Gamal Nkrumah

United States presidential contender John McCain is a hard man to defend, especially if you happen to be Arab or Muslim. "The transcendent issue of the 21st century is the struggle against radical Islamic extremism," McCain declares unabashedly. McCain's frequent threat that as president he would follow Al-Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden "to the gates of Hell", makes him exceedingly popular in certain circles in America. At least we know where he stands.

Senator Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, cannot be defended. She perfected the art of lying, and hardly anyone inside or outside America trusts her. America's history is littered with deceitful politicians of her ilk, and her trademark plastic smile says it all. It is hardly surprising then that Senator Barack Obama is the favourite US presidential candidate of people in this part of the world. Obama is the most outspoken critic of the war in Iraq among the US presidential hopefuls. He also misses no opportunity to remind his listeners that, unlike Clinton, he did not initially support the war. "Invading Iraq was a bad strategic blunder. I am proud that I opposed this war from the start," he stresses.

The big question, though, among Arabs and Muslims is if such anti-war posturing will win him any votes. Senator McCain is already gearing up for the inevitable spat over Iraq with the Democrats. McCain believes that withdrawing from Iraq would entail "catastrophic consequences". His main theme again is Islamist extremism. "I believe that Al-Qaeda would trumpet to the world that they had defeated the United States of America, and I believe that therefore they would try to follow us home," he rages.

As for an exit strategy, McCain makes no bones about not having one. "Withdrawal? What that means is that Al-Qaeda wins," he retorts, though in the same breath, he has the gall to claim the situation to be on the up and up. "Large areas of Baghdad are safe," he adds. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says McCain favours "a war without end", and stresses that Obama and Clinton would abide by their campaign promises and a "responsible, honourable, safe redeployment of our troops out of Iraq".

McCain markets himself as a war hero. He realises, however, that the calamitous Iraq war is most likely to be his campaign's prickly point, and the economic recession America finds itself in will not deflect attention from it. Indeed, in the minds of many Americans, the war and the poor state of the economy are inextricably intertwined. According to a recently-conducted poll, the majority of Americans believe that the best way to escape recession is to pull out of Iraq.

Obama's anti-war posturing has emerged as a source of grave concern to Israel, whose pro-Israel lobby in the US is a consequential factor not to be overlooked. Obama is black, his middle name is Hussein and he is the only US presidential hopeful on record to concede that "no one has suffered more than the Palestinian people", which unfortunately he later demurred that it was "misinterpreted". But, nonetheless.

Moreover, Obama's controversial Chicago pastor the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr argued that the 11 September attacks of 2001 demonstrated that "America's chickens are coming home to roost". Obama promptly rejected Wright's remarks as "inflammatory and appalling". Obama wedded his wife Michelle at Wright's Trinity United Church of Christ, had his children baptised by Wright. Again, Obama distanced himself from Wright's statements. The implications of these facts, however, are hard to tell.

McCain's emphasis on Iraq rather than Afghanistan, too, has considerable repercussions. The question is why? "We have a security gap when candidates say they will follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of Hell, but refuse to follow him where he actually goes," Obama rightly pointed out. But Iraq is generally regarded as a softer target. There is the hope that the Kurds and the Shia Muslims are more amenable to working with the Americans. They suffered greatly under Saddam Hussein and they are regarded as potential allies. Only the Sunni Muslim minority of Iraq who monopolised power under the late Iraqi strongman are regarded as a possible long-term threat. Afghanistan, a predominantly Sunni Muslim nation, is a veritable quagmire and it is understandable that McCain would prefer to talk loudly on the hustings about remoulding Iraq in America's image than about the horrors of the war in Afghanistan.

Obama derides Clinton's hypocrisy. "It's time for a new leadership that understands that the way to win a debate with John McCain is not by nominating someone who agreed with him on voting for the war in Iraq; who agreed with him by voting to give George Bush the benefit of the doubt on Iran; who agrees with him in embracing the Bush-Cheney policy of not talking to leaders we don't like; and who actually differed with him by arguing for exceptions for torture before changing positions when the politics of the moment changed," Obama aptly noted.

Obama, referring here to the 2002 vote authorising the use of force in Iraq which President George W Bush used to justify the invasion, is one of the very few US politicians who actually opposed the invasion at the time. Democrat Clinton, true to character, voted for the measure, presumably to show that she is more Catholic than the Pope, as did Republican McCain, which was only to be expected. Obama was not in the US Senate in 2003; however, he delivered an impassioned address to his native Illinois State Senate.

Obama's punch is that Clinton and McCain are singing the same song, and that is significant, at least as far as Arabs and Muslims are concerned. Clinton is under fire from two fronts as both McCain and Obama lambaste her Iraq policy as the US "celebrates" the fifth anniversary of its invasion of Iraq purportedly to locate WMDs, but in fact, to oust Saddam Hussein and institute American- style democracy. Again Clinton joins this tired tune, one which Obama does not buy into, but to no avail. McCain derided Clinton for advocating surrender, while Obama said his Democratic rival was lying about her vote in 2002 to authorise the use of force. Clinton's support for the invasion has lost her all credibility on the issue. "Senator McCain and President Bush claim withdrawal is defeat. Well, let's be clear, withdrawal is not defeat. Defeat is keeping troops in Iraq for 100 years," Clinton blustered.

She has a point; the problem is no one believes anything she says anymore. If elected, she promises she would convene military advisers and ask them to develop a plan to begin withdrawing US troops within 60 days of taking office in January. An about face that does not wash given her precious record of inconsistency. McCain, in a blooper worthy of his mentor, clarified this infamous 100 years: "When I said 100 years it was obviously after the war is over," an awfully long time to establish democracy, presumably the reason for extending the occupation of Iraq, but plenty of time to extract every last drop of oil.

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