By DENNIS SADOWSKI, CNS | Published October 2, 2008
The legacy of President George W. Bush will be framed primarily by one event: the ongoing war in Iraq.
At five and a half years and running, the Iraq War—portrayed by Bush as a vital front in what he has characterized as the war on terror—has left Americans divided and much of the world community looking beyond the United States for diplomatic leadership.
The war stands out for being the first whereby the U.S. took pre-emptive action to head off what it considered a potential threat to its national security.
However, surveys show Americans are growing increasingly impatient with the war as the cost of remaining in Iraq soars to nearly $560 billion and casualties mount. The Web site www.icasualties.org recorded 4,171 U.S. soldiers killed and another 30,634 injured as of Sept. 24. (The figures do not include Iraqi deaths or those of foreign military forces and private contractors.)
Even with the planned withdrawal of 8,000 troops within the next several weeks, more than 130,000 U.S. military personnel will remain in the country when either Republican Sen. John McCain or Democratic Sen. Barack Obama takes the oath of office as America’s 44th president Jan. 20.
How the two major candidates address the war is indicative of the personal histories of each man.
Obama, who publicly opposed the war even before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2004, has pledged to seek a “diplomatic surge” to bring peace to the region.
McCain, the military hero who was physically abused as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, adheres to a stay-the-course strategy, promising to eradicate Iraqi-based terrorism before he will consider reducing U.S. forces in the country.
Specifically, Obama has said he plans a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, beginning almost immediately after taking office. His plan calls for virtually all troops to be withdrawn by the summer of 2010, leaving a residual force to perform limited missions in support of the Iraqi government. The senator from Illinois has said gradual troop withdrawals would pressure the Iraqi leadership to move more rapidly to take responsibility for the country’s security.
In contrast, McCain uses the language of his military background, promising to take whatever steps are necessary to fight terrorism and keep America safe. McCain’s plan calls for reducing the U.S. military presence in Iraq only when Iraqi forces can safeguard the country. Demonstrating his commitment to the war effort, the senator from Arizona said during a campaign stop in January that troops would stay in Iraq for 100 years if necessary.
Neither view matches exactly the stance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which initially opposed military intervention and since 2006 has called for bipartisan cooperation to bring about a “responsible transition” in the oil-rich nation. The bishops seek the return of U.S. troops as soon as possible, provided the Iraqis can govern their country in the wake of the war, explained Stephen M. Colecchi, director of the USCCB’s Office of International Justice and Peace.
“The bishops don’t see the war in Iraq primarily as a partisan issue,” Colecchi told Catholic News Service. “They see it primarily as a human and moral issue.
“They don’t support the extreme response of an immediate withdrawal nor the extreme response of an indefinite deployment (of troops). They’re saying we have serious moral questions we have to deal with. We have to get out as soon as we possibly can, but we have to do it in a responsible way that minimizes loss of life and helps to rebuild the country of Iraq,” he said.
Along with stabilizing the country, the bishops say the needs of more than 2 million Iraqi refugees—many of them Christians who fled to Syria and Jordan—and another 2 million internally displaced Iraqis must be addressed.
“The U.S., because of its role as the occupying power, has a legal responsibility under international law and a moral responsibility to assist the Iraqi people in doing that,” Colecchi said. “And the Iraqis themselves need to make difficult political decisions that will lead to reconciliation within their communities.”
Obama’s platform concurs with the bishops’ assessment. No mention of refugees and displaced people can be found in McCain’s platform.
Catholic analysts say the situation in the Middle East is much broader than Iraq and that whoever becomes president will find the perilous relationship between Israel and the Palestinians undermining any attempt to achieve peace in the region. Iran’s role in the insurgency in Iraq, Iran’s nuclear program and the dangers posed by Islamic extremists also pose challenges for the U.S. role in the region.
“It’s a complicated mix there,” said Gerard Powers, director of policy studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. “I think Obama would take a more regionwide approach, a more multilateral approach. McCain is more focused on the urgent need for security.”
Despite the candidates’ current positions, Powers and Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, editor of America magazine and an expert in Middle East affairs, said with the changing political situation in Iraq—a gradually strengthening central government and declining violence—the positions of McCain and Obama appear to be inching closer together.
“I think the U.S. needs to abide by what an independent government of Iraq wants to do,” Father Christiansen told CNS. “I don’t think the Iraqis want the U.S. to pull out entirely, but they may want more (withdrawals) than some of the reluctant members of the military and the foreign policy establishment would like.”
Father Christiansen said Obama’s experience in community organizing, where negotiating is a valued skill, may help bring more partners to the table in the hope of achieving a regional peace more readily than the primarily military-based solution espoused by McCain. The complexity of the issues will take patience and a commitment for a just solution for all parties, he said.
“But in addition to taking patience, it’s going to take wise and just policy on the part of the U.S.,” the Jesuit said. “I don’t think we can presume we’re the biggest and the best. What’s happened, the situation in Georgia has indicated that just because we’re the biggest, we can’t think everyone is going to go along with what we want.
“You need a wise, just, generous policy that is very longsighted,” he added. “And for some time to come the U.S. military will be needed for world stability. The U.S. is going to need to do that but with a policy that uses both hands and that the hand holding the olive branch has to be out front.”
Powers expressed concern, however, about McCain’s “embrace of the Bush administration’s pre-emptive war argument.” If McCain holds fast to that view, it would dim the prospects for a regional peace accord, he said.
Whether Obama or McCain occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., rebuilding the country’s credibility in diplomatic circles will be one of the most difficult challenges the next president faces, said Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA.
“Our concern is the way this war has been waged, U.S. credibility has been so damaged. It’s hard to imagine the U.S. will be able to broker the international engagement that will be necessary (to bring peace to Iraq),” he said.
He suggested that the 44th president must seek international cooperation, joining with the United Nations, the Arab League and the European Union to ensure peace for Iraq and its neighbors. “That’s core to the Catholic view,” he said.
“The idea that the U.S. has all the solutions and that most of those solutions are implemented through the military has been the guiding mantra of this administration for seven years,” Robinson added. “The Democrats call for internal engagement and partnership. One can only hope that will be the foundation of the approach for the future.”