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Senators John McCain and Barack Obama Debate Iraq, Pakistan, Russia During First Debate

StorySeptember 29, 2008
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For analysis on Friday’s debate, we speak with investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss. He is a contributing editor with The Nation magazine and author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. In his latest blog posting about the foreign policy portions of the debate, he castigates Obama for not drawing a stark contrast with McCain. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The country has been deep in debate over the $700 billion bailout package for Wall Street since it was announced last week. But almost unnoticed, Congress approved another bill last week for over $600 billion. The Defense Authorization Bill for 2009 was passed by the House on Wednesday and cleared by the Senate on Saturday.

The bill authorizes $612 billion for national security programs in the Defense and Energy departments, including $68 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Associated Press, the bill eliminated language barring private interrogators from US military facilities. It opens the door to a missile defense system in Europe but does not mention troop withdrawal from Iraq and no longer requires congressional approval for a security pact with Iraq.

The bill received no mention during Friday night’s presidential debate. But Senators Barack Obama and John McCain did lay out some of their national security proposals with respect to Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn right now to Robert Dreyfuss. Robert Dreyfuss is contributing editor with The Nation magazine, author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. In his latest blog posting about the foreign policy portions of the debate, he castigates Obama for not drawing a stark contrast with McCain.

Robert Dreyfuss, welcome to Democracy Now! Your overall assessment of this first — what many call “the clash,” if you would call it that?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, I guess it was a clash, but it’s sad that Obama, not just in this debate, but in his entire campaign, hasn’t really tried to initiate a new discourse, a new dialogue, on foreign policy. He’s fallen back into the tried and true. He’s fallen back into a pretty much establishment view of what America’s foreign policy ought to look like. And maybe that’s a reflection of the fact that the American public is so poorly educated on foreign affairs, and maybe it’s a tribute to the fact that there’s still a lingering trauma from 9/11 — maybe it’s a little vaguer and inchoate now, but it’s still there — that he’s not willing to lay out, and certainly didn’t in this debate, a new kind of foreign policy.

He checked all of the boxes. You know, he’s ready to invade Pakistan. He wants to confront Russia. He wants to expand NATO to include more eastern European and Asian countries. He didn’t say much about Iraq. He wants to get more sanctions on Iran, and certainly, above all, he wants to escalate the war in Afghanistan. And it’s a sad commentary on the state of our political discourse on foreign policy that Obama could lay out that kind of a policy, on which, I have to say, McCain agrees on nearly every point.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But, Robert Dreyfuss, I was struck by the fact, not so much the debate over Iraq, but on the next war, that it seemed, in some instances, that Obama was even more of a hawk, especially when it came to Pakistan, to dealing — to moving into Pakistan, than even McCain was.

ROBERT DREYFUSS: You know, it’s interesting. Initially, a couple of years ago, it seemed like the Democrats, when they were talking about getting out of Iraq, were emphasizing Afghanistan as the right war and the one we needed to escalate in, and it almost seemed like that was their cover to say, OK, we’re doves on Iraq, but we’re hawks on Iran.

Now, Afghanistan has really moved front and center in many ways, and they’re talking about a real serious escalation there, adding as many as 35,000 troops, and, as we discussed a second ago, putting a lot more pressure on Pakistan not only to launch military actions of its own up in the tribal areas in the northwest, but cross-border raids by the United States from Afghanistan into Pakistan, which, to me, resemble, remind me of, the escalation in Vietnam, when we decided that going into Cambodia and Laos would win the war and clean out the sanctuaries. This is a very, very complicated part of the world, and Obama has clearly said that if there are these kinds of infiltration, cross-border attacks, he said in the debate, we have to make some tough decisions. And I think what he meant by that was that we have to start thinking, as President Bush has ordered, thinking about intensifying attacks into Pakistan itself.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play one clip of the debate. The moderator Jim Lehrer had asked Senators Obama and McCain for their thoughts on the, quote, “lessons” of Iraq.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: We are winning in Iraq, and we will come home with victory and with honor. And that withdrawal is a result of every counterinsurgency that succeeds. And I want to tell you that now that we will succeed and our troops will come home and not in defeat, that we will see a stable ally in the region and a fledgling democracy. The consequences of defeat would have been increased Iranian influence. It would have been increase in sectarian violence.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: Six years ago, I stood up and opposed this war at a time when it was politically risky to do so, because I said that not only did we not know how much it was going to cost, what our exit strategy might be, how it would affect our relationships around the world, and whether our intelligence was sound, but also because we hadn’t finished the job in Afghanistan.

    Now, Senator McCain and President Bush had a very different judgment. And I wish I had been wrong, for the sake of the country, and they had been right, but that’s not the case.

    I think the lesson to be drawn is that we should never hesitate to use military force, and I will not, as president, in order to keep the American people safe, but we have to use our military wisely, and we did not use our military wisely in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, certainly he got off a few zingers to McCain about being wrong six years ago about going into Iraq, but Obama is strangely on the defensive on this question of the surge. The fact is that two years ago, the vast consensus in the American establishment — and Bob Woodward’s book points this out brilliantly, actually — the vast consensus was that it was time to get out of Iraq, not only among Democrats and liberals and doves, but the US military and General Casey and General Abizaid were saying it’s time to start drawing down our forces. The Baker-Hamilton Report came out as a bipartisan thing and said we absolutely have to start withdrawing immediately all of our combat brigades on a twelve-month timetable.

Obama should have stuck that to McCain and said, “You know, Senator McCain, if it weren’t for you and your neocon surge, we’d be out of Iraq by now. It’s two years later. The war would be over. We wouldn’t have 160,000 troops, wouldn’t be bleeding $10 billion a month in that country.” And instead, he’s strangely on the defensive on this Iraq thing.

He didn’t talk about his own withdrawal plan. He threw — it was a throwaway line of, “Oh, I have this sixteen-month thing.” But he didn’t say that McCain wants to stay in Iraq for a hundred years, and “the day that I’m in office, I’m going to get our troops out of there as fast as possible,” and lay that out and hammer away at both the political and military and the economic consequences of withdrawing. He really rolled over on this surge. And I think his campaign is really weak and afraid on this issue, and they need to start getting tough about it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What about their views on the increasing tensions with Russia between the United States and Russia?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Well, look, Russia is a huge nation that is going to be not only across the border from Alaska, but all over Europe and Asia for the infinite future, and we’ve got to deal with Russia on major issues that are of concern to us, including the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan and dealing with the Iran crisis, among, you know, twenty other things we could list. Confronting Russia over a provocative move by our ally Georgia and Russia’s response is just silly.

Expanding NATO deep into Asia, including Georgia in NATO — I mean, does Obama think that the American people are clamoring to expand NATO? Against what fear is he supporting an expansion of NATO into eastern Europe? It really makes no sense, unless you think that Obama and his advisers have become truly part of the establishment that has signed onto this NATO expansion idea.

So, this is an area where McCain and his campaign are extremely vulnerable. One of McCain’s top aides was a lobbyist, paid lobbyist, for Georgia for many, many years and is in bed with the Georgian government and is all wrapped up with that war. McCain [sic.] should be hammering away at that and saying, you know, we need to use diplomacy and relax about Russia and deal with them as a co-equal partner.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean Obama should be?

ROBERT DREYFUSS: Obama should be saying that, exactly. And instead, he’s letting — you know, he’s basically echoing McCain’s policies on Russia and Georgia.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Dreyfuss, we’re going to have to leave it there, investigative reporter, contributing editor at The Nation. His latest book, Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

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