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Middle East takes a backseat

16 June, 2008

By Anayat Durrani


With the primaries and Hillary Clinton behind them, the race between senators Barack Obama and John McCain is officially on. Both candidates are wasting no time as their bid for the presidency gains momentum. On their dash to the White House, the presidential hopefuls have already made their usual stops before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). But with a voter base concerned with rising gas prices and a weakened economy, how the issues of Jerusalem and Iraq will play out in the candidate's political campaigns remains to be seen.

"Iraq is important and the Middle East peace process and the status of Jerusalem are important, but the peace process and the status of Jerusalem are not as 'front and centre' as the war in Iraq," said David McCuan, associate professor of political science at Sonoma State University.

However, McCuan said the key issues in the race which are likely to continue to dominate are the economic slowdown and the rise of gas prices. McCuan said election 2008 is shaping up to be one that is more about domestic politics and economics at home rather than what is occurring abroad.

"The top issue in November 2008 is likely to be the state of the American economy, and the price of oil and the need for energy independence will be a big part of that discussion," said Bill Boettcher, associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs of North Carolina State University.

On the international front Boettcher believes there will be four main issues associated with the Middle East affecting the McCain-Obama presidential race: Iraq, Iran, oil and the Arab- Israeli conflict. Iraq is one issue that has from the onset been a major point of contention between the candidates. Obama ardently opposes the Iraq war while McCain remains a strong supporter.

"Senator McCain hopes to pursue victory in Iraq and is willing to sustain or even increase troop levels and military expenditures," said Boettcher.

Boettcher believes McCain's policies on Iraq will be very similar to that of the Bush administration and that Iraq will continue to be associated with the so-called war on terror. In contrast, he said Senator Obama wants to begin a withdrawal of American troops from Iraq as soon as he takes office and has set forth a "responsible timetable" for the removal of US troops in about 16 months. Boettcher said Obama would "leave a residual force in Iraq to prevent civil war and mop-up terrorist elements".

Professor Steve Weber at the University of California, Berkeley, believes McCain will argue that, "the war in Iraq, regardless of its origins, is indeed now a war of critical importance to US national security, and he will paint Obama as irresponsible for not understanding that, and being willing to 'cut and run'."

Weber said Obama will use the argument that this was, and remains, a "wrong" war, that the US is doing more harm by remaining in Iraq and that it is crucial for the sake of national security that it pull out of this mistake and redeploy elsewhere where their efforts are more needed.

"He will say McCain is a prisoner of Bush's failed policies, and that trying to fix what was a fundamental error is no longer as smart as simply declaring it an error and moving forward," said Weber. "This, I think, will be a critical issue in the campaign, more so than many in the US media believe right now."

The McCain camp has targeted its attacks on Obama at his lack of foreign policy experience and perceived weakness towards enemies abroad. Boettcher said McCain recently scored political points when he portrayed Obama as naïve on foreign policy for his willingness to meet with enemies and allies. McCain has cariticised Obama about not having visited Iraq since 2006 and failing to meet General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq.

"Bush's now famous "appeasement" accusation lost some of its impact when the press reported the Israel-Syria negotiations in Turkey and the Bush administration efforts to negotiate with North Korea," said Boettcher.

Boettcher said McCain has recently benefited from public perceptions of success having to do with the surge of American forces, "but these perceptions have not resulted in gains on the core questions of war support -- perceptions of prospective success, retrospective perceptions of the decision to go to war, and attitudes regarding troop withdrawal." Boettcher said that most Americans believe that invading Iraq was a wrong decision; a democratic Iraq is unlikely; and that they would like to see their troops come home.

"The perceived success of the surge has lowered the intensity of anti-war sentiment and reduced public attentiveness to current events in Iraq, but unless we see dramatic improvements in the early fall, Obama's position will be closer to the median voter's attitudes," said Boettcher.

Weber said the polling data suggests that most Americans agree with Obama, specifically that "Iraq was the 'wrong' war to fight." However, he said they are also cautious of a plan to "cut and run" not only because of what it would do to Iraq but also because of its effects on US national security.

In a 4 June speech at the AIPAC Annual Policy Conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told the crowd, "every Democratic president from Truman to Clinton has strengthened that bond by providing for Israel's security and brokering peace. Democrats and Republicans -- all of us together -- speak with one voice in our commitment to Israel's security and quest for peace. That commitment to Israel has always been honoured beyond politics or partisanship, and that must not change."

Speaking before AIPAC both presidential candidates pledged their commitment to Israel, just as did all recent presidential hopefuls before them. On issues related to Israel, the Palestinians, and the future of Jerusalem, both Weber and Boettcher believe it unlikely that the candidates will differ in their campaigns.

"Both, I think, will endorse a two-state solution, and both will carefully say that the actual parties to the conflict will have to find their own answers, although the United States stands ready to help in that process. Pretty familiar positions," said Weber.

Boettcher said McCain has tried to label Obama as the "candidate of Hamas" and said "right-wing pundits have emphasised, and occasionally lied about, Obama's Muslim heritage." He said Republicans would attempt to focus on historical tensions between the Jewish and African-American communities, although Obama's speech to AIPAC sought to smooth over any of these issues.

"Palestinians may see Obama as the lesser of two evils, but both candidates are likely to continue Bush's support for Israel and unwillingness to make concessions to Hamas," said Boettcher. "Further, neither candidate is likely to punish Israel for its construction of the security barrier or tolerance of new illegal settlements."

The candidates' speeches before AIPAC revealed that Iran has apparently bumped Iraq out of the spotlight, making it a new issue on the campaign trail. On Iran, McCain has argued that Obama is naïve to believe he can hold talks with its leadership. Obama argued that McCain is pursuing the exact policy towards Iran that President Bush has, which has only served to embolden Iran.

"The Bush administration continues to hammer Ahmadinejad in the press and accuses Iran of aiding insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Boettcher. "Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology will lead both candidates to advocate more sanctions and IAEA inspections, but McCain is more likely to continue with Bush's stated policy of 'keeping all options on the table'."

Up to this point candidates have been talking to their own party, said Weber, but now the real election campaigns begin. "Now, they start talking to the entire country, and to each other," he said. With the rest of the world watching, time will tell where the issues of Jerusalem, Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East fall in their campaigns.

"Expect both candidates to support research on alternative energy sources, higher energy standards for American automobiles, and diplomatic pressure on oil producers to increase supply, regardless of how realistic that demand may be," said Boettcher. "I would expect some anti-Saudi statements to appear in the press and the candidates will have to talk tough while at the same time reassuring Gulf states that we will return to business as usual after the election."

McCuan said that American voters tend to vote their pocketbooks and as gas prices have gone over $4 per gallon, along with a stale economy, "voters are feeling squeezed." Right now, McCuan said, the war in Iraq ranks as second or third in importance for most voters.

"With the presidential election campaign just underway, we'll have to see how important Iraq and the issues of peace, Palestinian statehood, and the case of Jerusalem, shape up to be," said McCuan. "For many parts of the country where the economy is struggling, there is only one issue -- their cash-strapped family budget."

End.

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