We have been saying over and over again that the 2008 presidential election is a critical turning point for US foreign policy, and that the US’s interaction with the rest of the world is more important to voters than it has been in decades. This was evidenced once again by the amount of time the candidates spent in last night’s debate addressing Nevada voters’ concerns about Iraq and Iran.
The first mention came when Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to respond to claims that the “surge” in Iraq is working. Thankfully, the three candidates who answered the question put those claims in perspective. Governor Bill Richardson took the opportunity to emphasize that he is one of the few candidates who opposes leaving any residual forces in Iraq:
What I am saying here is the surge is not working. There is less — right now less possibility of a political solution. Three out of the 18 benchmarks — the General Accounting Office — have been fulfilled. Even among Republican math is a failing grade. (Laughter.) What I’m saying, also, is that look at this statistic — 65 percent of the Iraqi people now say it’s okay to shoot an American soldier. Our troops are dying — over 3,800, two today, 60,000 wounded, casualties, mainly mental trauma.
Now, my position is that we get the troops out in a year. Leave no residual forces behind unlike some of my colleagues here that want to leave some until 2013, but not just wave goodbye because we have a responsibility, and that is, one, to get a political compromise, a U.S.-led political compromise among the three groups; that they share power — the Sunni, the Shi’a, the Kurds — that they share oil revenues; that we have an all-Muslim, all-Arab peacekeeping force with some European forces headed by the U.N.; a donor conference that involves other countries; European Union, rich Arab states contributing to the reconstruction of Iraq, where we have spent $500 billion in this war when this money should be used in America for health care, education and for kids.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich agreed, and reiterated his position that we should bring the troops home now. Senator Obama also agreed that the surge was not working and offered suggestions for pursuing regional diplomacy, but only mentioned withdrawing combat troops:
But the overall strategy is failed, because we have not seen any change in behavior among Iraq’s political leaders. And that is the essence of what we should be trying to do in Iraq.
That’s why I’m going to bring this war to a close. That’s why we can get our combat troops out within 16 months. That’s why we have to initiate the kind of regional diplomacy — not just talking to our friends but talking to our enemies, like Iran and Syria, to try to stabilize the situation there. (Applause.)
But I just want to make this important point because all of us, as we’re campaigning, we’re seeing this in human terms. People are on two, three, four tours of duty. Families are carrying an enormous burden.
This year, we saw the highest casualty rates for American troops in Iraq since this war started. The same, by the way, is true in Afghanistan. If we have seen a lowering violence rate, that’s only compared to earlier this year. We’re back to where we started back in 2006.
The candidates then answered questions from a woman and her son, who had served three tours of duty in Iraq. They wanted to know which candidate could stop the apparent rush to war with Iran. As in the recent debates, the Kyl-Lieberman amendment was a focus of the conversation. Senator Joe Biden focused on his current role in the Senate:
What it did was, ma’am, what it did was it convinced the rest of the Muslim world this is really a war against Islam and not a war in Iraq; and number two, it rose the — it caused the price of oil to head to $100 a barrel. We’re paying $30 a barrel for what they call a risk premium. And it helped destabilize the situation both in Iran — I mean Afghanistan and Pakistan.
So the way to do this is to keep quiet, hush up, and do what I told the president personally and what I’ve said as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. If he takes the country to war in Iraq (sic) without a vote of Congress, which will not exist, then he should be impeached. (Cheers, applause.)
Clinton and Edwards exchanged jabs again about the vote on the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, with Clinton again insisting that it did not pave the way for potential war with Iran. Senator Obama discussed what he would do as president, returning to his once-controversial proposal to conduct high-level diplomacy with the US’s “enemies”:
But understand the problem with this vote on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. It wasn’t simply that it was identified as a terrorist organization. It was also that in the language of the resolution it said we should maintain our forces in Iraq with an eye towards blunting Iranian influence. So it’s not just going to have an impact in terms of potentially having a war against Iran. It also gives this administration an excuse to perpetuate their failed strategy in Iraq, and that could mean that you could be redeployed in Iraq. That’s why this was a mistake, and that’s why not only do we have to bring the war in Iraq to a close, but we have to change the mindset that got us into war, which means we initiate — yes, I agree with Hillary that we’ve got to initiate bold diplomacy. I think the next president has to lead that diplomacy. It can’t just be envoys.
And one of the reasons I’m running for president — and Hillary and I had a disagreement on this. I said I would meet with not just our friends, but also with our enemies because that’s what strong countries and — (cheers, applause) — what strong presidents do is meet with our adversaries, tell them where we stand. (Continued applause.)
The candidates briefly addressed the highly unpopular proposed nuclear waste site at Yucca Mountain. (The local relevance of nuclear issues in Nevada was highlighted in an ad run in the Las Vegas Review-Journal by our sister organization, the Peace Education Fund). They did not, however, provide insight into how they would deal with the threat of global nuclear proliferation, including stopping the development of nuclear weapons here in the US. Our Voters for Peace and Security organizers and volunteers will continue to trail the candidates at their campaign appearances, getting them on the record on Iraq and nuclear weapons and showing them that a progressive foreign policy is a winning foreign policy.