Outdated mindsets cloud thinking on Iraq

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2008, 12:00am

American presidential elections do not always elucidate issues of outstanding interest to the rest of the world. They can often muddy, rather than clarify, raging waters. The current race for the White House, however, might just prove to be a great clarifier, especially on the issue of the Iraq war.

This is undoubtedly the high-profile foreign-policy problem that the world would like the US electoral system to resolve decisively. At the moment, the three leading candidates to succeed President George W. Bush each have separate and distinct positions on the war.

Republican Senator John McCain has clearly stated that he is for staying in Iraq until the job is done (whatever that means). The position of this brave war veteran deserves a measure of respect, even if we disagree with it. After all, he may even be right. But at least he is not vague and dithering, and deceptively ambiguous.

One hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction is Democratic Senator Barack Obama's view. As Caroline Kennedy - daughter of JFK - has pointedly noted, Senator Obama is the only prominent candidate who voted against the war from the start and has consistently opposed it.

But if - like the great philosopher Aristotle - you are uncomfortable with extreme positions (gung-ho, or get out), look to the considered views of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. She hints at impatience and unhappiness with the war, but aims to avoid any precipitous approach, especially any that might lose her votes or embarrass her if the US suddenly seems to be 'winning' (whatever that might mean).

Very few elections are decided on one issue; as the American economy worsens, Iraq will not be the only high-profile topic. Nevertheless, it is good to see the war question possibly settled one way or the other.

The rest of the world deserves some kind of a definitive answer. If America begins a Senator Obama-led withdrawal, there will be widespread relief. If it digs in for a longer haul, as per Senator McCain, at least the world will know where America stands.

Senator McCain seems, to a lot of Americans, to possess uncommon integrity. But it is sad that prolonging our stay in Iraq appears to be such a matter of principle for him. I know his election would disappoint many of our friends around the world.

One of them is Kishore Mahbubani, the diplomat and educator. In his new book, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East, Singapore's former UN ambassador terms Iraq as nothing less than a great foreign-policy blunder.

Now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Government, he is anything but an America-basher. However, he writes in the book: 'The need to develop a better understanding of our world has never been greater ... But it is clear that the world views of the leading western minds are trapped in the previous centuries ... The Americans and British had benign intentions: to free the Iraqi people from despotic rule and to rid the world of a dangerous man, Saddam Hussein. Neither Bush nor Blair had malevolent intentions. Yet, the mental maps that they brought to understand Iraq were mired in one cultural context: the western mindset.

'Many Americans actually believed that invading American troops would be welcomed with petals thrown on the streets by happy Iraqis. The idea that any Islamic country would welcome western military boots on its soil defies belief. The invasion, and especially the occupation, of Iraq will go down as one of the most botched operations in human history.'

Mr Mahbubani is right about the war, of course. But Senator McCain, if elected, is not on the same page about that topic. Thus, Asia (with most of the world's Muslims) and America may well be destined for even further degrees of historic separation. That would be a tragedy.

Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author, most recently, of Confessions of an American Media Man