April 28, 2007

A thought on the US Presidential Race

Shockingly for an election that is over a year away, speculation and a media frenzy has already started around those who would be running for US President in November 2008, if they could. On the Democrat side, the attention has mostly gathered around Senators Obama, Clinton and Edwards, on the Republican side around Senator McCain, Governor Romney, Senator Thompson (who isn't even running officially yet) and Mayor Guiliani. I don't at the moment have a particular preference- partly because it seems slightly crazy to me to make a choice of someone who one would like others to elect in over two years time- for example who knows what issues will be central to American politics by then, we can all assume but history has a way of surprising us- it may be that America requires a burst of new hope that a character like Obama or Romney might provide or the steady hand or an experienced McCain or Clinton. Despite that journalists have started writing profiles and discussing candidates already- for instance Reason magazine ran an item this month on McCain and it seems worthwhile to assess exactly what questions we ought to be asking (if indeed we ought to be asking any) at the moment.

The United States is at present engaged within two tragic conflicts which are costing lives (both American and non-American)- one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq. It is conventionally assumed that the success or failure of both operations is linked in some way to terrorist activity- that Al Quaeda has been strengthened by the comparative failure to settle Iraq but was weakened by the successful military operations in Afghanistan. Consequently the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan tie into a wider struggle, some have misnamed the war on terror, against Islamic militancy. At the moment, the US is pursuing a particular strategy in both nations- in Afghanistan it is supporting the Afghan government and putting pressure on the Pakistani government to sweep out the last strongholds of the Taliban in the south, in Iraq the United States has embarked on a surge of armed forces- for reasons I've outlined and criticised here. Both these operations are obviously at the front of the current campaign- but I think the debate on them is curiously misguided- and needs to be redressed.

Let us reemphasize what the Americans are doing- they are not choosing an American President to take office now but choosing one to take office on the 1st January 2009. By then particularly in Iraq, most supporters and opponents of the surge accept that we will either know whether the operation has succeeded or failed- we will know what has happenned. In that context, either the next President will have an easy task- to declare that operations are complete or that Iraq is improving and keep going, or s/he will have a much more difficult task, to work out what to do next. What other options are there out there and what should be done for American interests in the circumstances of the failure of the surge? (I don't think what happens should the surge succeed is very difficult to calculate- but even its most steadfast proponents must accept that there is a percentage chance of failure.)

On that basis Senator McCain's recent confession that he didn't know what to do should the surge fail is particularly puzzling- that is exactly what should he be elected he might have to deal with. By the time of such an election, the question of whether to do the surge or not would be a question of past not future politics- so why is everyone so worried about it? Partly because it demonstrates the judgement of the candidates involved, they are being asked because it might indicate what they would do as President- however one must notice two facts about that particular way of thinking that make it a bit ludicrous- firstly that they don't have the intelligence and the sophisticated work that underpins any decision from the White House and secondly they aren't in the seat, they don't have to make the decision. All they have to do is pontificate. Under pressure, character changes- no more so than with the current President who entered the White House sceptical of nation building and has become the biggest nation builder of all US Presidents since Harry Truman.

Why are we all involved in this? This next election won't be about President Bush- wise or foolish his time will have passed but the voters and the media and the candidates want it to be about President Bush because it gives them something to talk about. The truth is that noone knows what the circumstances of 2008 might be- a major terrorist attack on the continental United States or escalating casualties in Baghdad or peace in Iraq all might give the campaign a different set of contours and face candidates with a different set of questions than those facing President Bush at the moment. I would prefer to see, if I have to, the candidates discuss some of the options for what might be true in 2009, rather than what should be done in the here and now. So what about some options for what happens should the surge fail? What about some thoughts on what if the US would withdraw their attitude would be to Iranian influence inside Iraq? What about some gaming for the future instead of concentrating on decisions that neither the candidates nor the electorate can influence.

There are obviously reasons that the candidates are unwilling to do this- a fear of binding their hands, a fear of alienating people through their answers (what would be the response of a Democrat to an Iranian nuclear test for example, or of a Republican to the American casualty rate hitting hundreds or even thousands in Iraq)- but I think it points out the difficulty of these campaigns starting so early. Afterall Mayor Guiliani's view of the surge is about as relevant as Jim Baker's- its his view of what comes next should the surge succeed or fail that's more interesting- because he might be presiding over it.


james higham said...

Perhaps I misread your post, Tiberius but I didn't see any reference to there not being a United States after 2009.

This surely impacts on the presidential race. You know - the SPPNA, which is scheduled to begin in April 2010 [presume you read the succession of posts on this].

merben said...

The War in Iraq remains a vital issue in the upcoming election. It was the center of the recent Democratic debate indicating that is is a very important issue. The results of recent election 2008 polls should tell us of the Iraq issue debate's impact on the outcome of the election.