Sat, Apr 26, 2008 - Page 9 News List

The war facing the next president is the struggle to leave Iraq

The one thing known by all three candidates for the US leadership is that whoever wins must do something painful: negotiate the terms of an eventual retreat

By Simon Jenkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , WASHINGTON

Washington is numb during a presidential campaign. The oxygen of power drains to the hustings. Blossoms droop, restaurants empty, pompous porticos slump as their tenants depart. Even the issue of Iraq, whose subsidies fund more of Washington than they do Baghdad, has left town and gone local.

The one thing known by all three candidates for the US presidency is that whoever wins must do something painful. He or she must negotiate the terms of an eventual retreat from Iraq, not with the Iraqis but with the US people. Even Senator and Republican candidate John McCain, who watched the retreat from Vietnam and swears he will “stay a hundred years in Iraq until peace, stability and democracy” are achieved, will eventually leave, if only under the lash of Congress.

Yet now is not the time to admit it.

A war that is unpopular with 60 percent to 70 percent of Americans is not politically sustainable, however stupefying the cost. But the modalities of its ending are unpredictable and possibly humiliating.

THE PARADOX

Both Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may call for early withdrawal, at least of “combat troops.” But the real paradox of Iraq is that McCain knows he must find a way of leaving and Clinton and Obama know they must find a way of staying — if only for the time being. For all of them, getting from here to there crosses uncharted territory and none wants to glimpse the map.

Though foreign policy is rarely salient in peacetime elections, the country has almost been persuaded by US President George W. Bush that they are not at peace. To visit the US at present is to be reminded of the continuing trauma of post-Sept. 11, of a nation that craves a cohering substitute psychosis for the lifting of the Soviet menace. It is seen in ubiquitous threat alerts, hysterical airport security, the continued acceptance of Guantanamo Bay and even jibes about public figures not wearing the US flag in their buttonhole. A country in so many ways a kaleidoscope of the world is in many ways so different. Above all, it is full of soldiers.

Most Americans still do not travel abroad and rely on TV news for their knowledge of foreign places, which they continue to regard with bizarre suspicion. Hence a world view is lumped in with defense and security in a collective paranoia. And a candidate’s stance on foreign policy is a proxy for his or her character. To this the candidates must pander.

Hence Clinton emphasizes her “role” in Kosovo and her “mis-remembered” landing in Bosnia under fire. Obama stresses his links to three world continents and a seminal visit as a young man to Karachi. McCain trumps them by having been tortured by the Vietnamese, a sanctification whose only drawback is that it recalls his age, 71.

All must appear trigger-happy. McCain may distance himself from the unilateralism of Bush and remark that the US must show “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.”

But his team is penetrated by such neocons as Robert Kagan and John Bolton, on the basis that “if we can’t beat him, we can persuade him.”

The only thing to be said about McCain is that his position on everything is uncertain.

‘ANNIE OAKLEY

Desperate not to be outflanked on defense, Clinton said that she would “totally obliterate” Iran if Iran bombed Israel. Last week she offered an astonishing nuclear-shield guarantee for neighbors of a nuclear Tehran.

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