- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

OP-ED:

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama will begin their final drive for the presidency in September. Their stances on the Iraq War may be on many voter minds come election day. As it now stands, Mr. McCain’s prospects are enhanced by the dramatic security, political and economic improvements occurring in Iraq.

The two senators recently spoke at the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention. Mr. McCain emphasized he will bring U.S. troops home with honor and victory, leaving Iraq secured as a democratic ally in the Persian Gulf heartland. Mr. Obama reiterated his long-standing view that the five-year-old Iraq War is a mistake and a waste of U.S. lives and money.

War-weary Americans have paid a heavy price in attempting to deliver freedom, liberty, security, and peace to 27 million Iraqis living in that long-oppressed and war-ravaged country. At the end of July 2008, America’s cumulative death toll and estimated war expenditures totaled 4,131 and about $750 billion respectively.

However, Iraq is vitally important to U.S. national security and economic interests. It stands at the geopolitical center of the turbulent Gulf region where two-thirds of the world’s oil is produced. The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates Iraq possesses the world’s third largest oil reserves.Until other energy sources are developed,Americawill remain very reliant on that region to fuel its $13.8 trillion annual economy.

Beginning with Jimmy Carter, every U.S. president sought to protect U.S. Persian Gulf interests from aggressors, even with military force. Mr. Carter considered the Saddam Hussein regime so dangerous that he placed it on the first U.S. state sponsor of terrorism list in 1979. President George H.W. Bush, with congressional permission, sent U.S. troops to forcibly remove Mr. Hussein’s invasion forces from oil-rich Kuwait in 1991. President Clinton bombed the country and signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998 which made regime change official U.S. policy. And, by overwhelming bipartisan House and Senate votes, Congress gave President Bush authority to use force in 2002 when Mr. Hussein failed to abide by all the surrender terms of the earlier war.

After removing Iraq’s dictator from power in 2003, the U.S.-led coalition experienced several years of significant problems quelling foreign terrorist, insurgent, and ethno-sectarian violence. When the war reached its most difficult period, Mr. McCain steadfastly strove to see the mission through to victory. Mr. Obama pursued his party’s nomination by promising to remove U.S. troops from the country regardless of circumstances or consequences. The war dynamic turned when President Bush’s early 2007 military surge and strategy change in Iraq - which Mr. McCain supported and Mr. Obama opposed - produced remarkable results.

By mid-2008, Iraq’s overall violence plummeted by approximately 80 percent; al Qaeda-instigated ethno-sectarian violence dropped by some 90 percent. Moreover, in July, American combat deaths reached its lowest monthly level for the war and all five U.S. combat surge brigades left the country. The improved security situation enabled the Iraqi government to achieve significant political and economic progress. It satisfactorily met 15 of 18 U.S.-established benchmarks. Its oil output is expected to be double and its oil revenues to be nearly three times last year’s level, rising to about $80 billion. Since the war began, Iraqis have regained their sovereignty; held three free elections with higher percentages of voter turnout than in America; formed a permanent constitutional government proportionately represented by Shiite, Sunnis and Kurds; and brought to trial, convicted and executed their former dictator. They have also seen Sunnis largely abandon the insurgency and help coalition forces defeat al Qaeda; seen their troops defeat Iranian-supported Shiite militias in Amarah, Basra and Sadr City; and seen their country positioned to become the freest nation in the Gulf region and the Arab world - thanks mostly to American sacrifices and generosity.

According to an August 2008 Time magazine opinion survey, these developments haven’t gone unnoticed. In responding to a question as to which candidate would best manage the Iraq War, Americans chose Mr. McCain over Mr. Obama by a 51 to 36 percent margin. It’s no secret why: they would like their country to succeed, rather than fail in this war.

Despite continuing dangers lurking inside Iraq and from some neighboring states, the next U.S. president will likely oversee a successful war conclusion. However, he will face serious challenges in satisfactorily handling the growing Taliban and opium poppy problems in Afghanistan; al Qaeda’s and the Taliban’s sanctuary in nuclear-armed and unstable Pakistan; Iran’s efforts to build nuclear weapons, North Korea’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile capability, China’s and Russia’s strategic ambitions; Castro-Chavez’s attempts to destabilize the Western Hemisphere; and the growing reach of the radical Islamic movement. If American voters make Iraq the determinant issue in the presidential contest it will redound to Mr. McCain’s benefit. He has shown the toughness, vision and judgment necessary to keep America strong, safe and protect her interests. Mr. Obama hasn’t.

Fred Gedrich, who served in the Departments of State and Defense, is a foreign policy and national security analyst.

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