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 Sunday, October 26, 2008

Joe Biden was Right, but that Does NOT Mean John McCain is Right

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Clive Leviev-Sawyer

The John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign is running attack ads against Barack Obama on the basis of Joe Biden’s prediction that there could be a “generated crisis” internationally to exploit Obama’s apparent vulnerability as a newly-elected president.

The trouble for the Republican camp is that their angle could prove either a backfire or a misfire.

Biden drew the parallel with John F Kennedy and the Cuban missile crisis, on the grounds of JFK having been a senator in his 40s with no foreign policy experience to speak of, but it equally could be mentioned that less than a year in office, former Texas governor George Bush faced 9/11.

For that matter, in the first half of George HW Bush’s single-term presidency came the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the end of the Cold War –neither taking into account that the elder Bush had plenty of foreign policy experience, as a former vice president, a former US ambassador to the UN, a former US envoy to China and for that matter, a former director of the CIA.

The end of the Cold War was no “generated crisis” but the invasion of Kuwait may have been a gamble by Saddam Hussein, who did not let himself be held back by the 41st president’s CV.

Foreign and international crises, including the unpredictable and the “generated”, are a matter of inevitability for every US president, and for that matter, any leader of any country that matters.

Biden, in the remarks on which the Republicans have fallen with glee, mentioned the Middle East and Russia as the places from which “generated” crises might emanate.

He was correct, however inconvenient this might be for the Obama camp, but incorrect not to make a longer list.

He has had some help from the McCain-Palin camp, which in the ad currently being broadcast waves the bogeymen of Venezuela and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Republicans are not wrong either, except in trying to use the “risk” principle to try to bring down Obama because – more of this below – McCain would be equally vulnerable. Al-Qaeda has committed terrorist attacks during the times of Democratic and Republican administrations:

9/11 happened on the second Bush’s watch.
The list of trouble spots is a long one.

It has certain themes in common, apart from terrorist groups and in most cases, Islamic fundamentalists who favour terrorism.

One is oil.

To follow Biden’s apparent point about Russia, the story of Russia at the moment cannot be separated from the story of energy and oil in particular. The importance, and the risks, related to oil pipeline projects related to Russia and Caucasus cannot be underestimated. The story of oil cannot be separated from potential trouble spots or countries that are or include frozen conflicts zones, a list including Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus and Turkmenistan. Further, it is to be hoped that the extremely lengthy Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is and will be well-secured.

Not only has its Georgia venture shown that Moscow stops for, and at, nothing to secure what it sees as its interests, in Moscow one is dealing with a society underpinned by oil, as is evident by the current impact on its economy by falling oil prices. Russia-related risks are twofold – a strong Russia that does not hesitate to roll out the tanks; and a Russia whose economy is troubled by underperforming oil prices and thus may be at risk of instability, if not at the centre, then at the periphery.
  • The Middle East is a well-canvassed subject and for its very unpredictability certain to in the frame of whoever sits in the Oval Office.

  • Iran remains an unresolved issue and is likely to remain so for years and will continue, just like North Korea, to remain the focus of US intelligence and diplomatic efforts. Whoever becomes president, if he is surprised by something emanating from Iran or North Korea, he would have been seriously let down by Washington’s intelligence and diplomatic networks. The latter scenario, of course, not one that is without precedent.

  • The Republicans were correct to mention Venezuela. Not only are the policies being pursued there unlikely, to put this mildly, to work out well for that country in the long term, it similarly is vulnerable to the vagaries of the world oil market. Of course, in the long term, it would be vulnerable to the potential successes of an Obama or a McCain White House, provided that either of the putative senators-turned-presidents could carry out their energy independence promises and serve two terms. But that is a scenario much more long-term than the current debate, if the bogeyman-waving can be called that.

    There are other areas less well-canvassed than the Middle East in US political debate or, for that matter, media coverage that contain the potential for an unpleasant surprise for a president Obama or president McCain.
  • Africa encompasses many. The list of trouble spots includes, but is not limited to, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Chad, the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville) and Burundi, to say nothing of the risk of a spectacular escalation – perhaps through the intervention of a terrorist group – in the Sudan.

    The US not only does not have a good track record in Africa, but that continent is a subject regarded gingerly by Washington, especially after Somalia. Not only is militant Islam on the march, of which the embassy bombings are just one example, but partly outside the ideological framework of terrorists, kidnappings are something of an industry – including in the Niger Delta, where militants are active, and again the story is largely about oil.

    Then there is the “perfect storm” scenario in which serious trouble flares up on more than continent or region at once.

  • It cannot be forgotten that, apart from problems simmering in the Caucasus, in the Middle East, in Pakistan and Afghanistan specifically (although it should be fair to take outright war zones as read), in Africa and South America, there are problems brewing everywhere from the Phillipines to, yes, even Europe.

  • Less dramatically than in the less developed world, Europe faces everything from reduced growth expectations in the eurozone and thus fewer opportunities for those in the lower reaches of the economy such as immigrants, but also the move by Europe to shore itself up against unskilled immigration – however understandable – is certain to be a source of tensions, especially among those who would seek to (mis)interpret a Europe keener on stricter immigration rules as essentially anti-Islamic and anti-African, and thus, in the world view of such people, liable to further terrorist attacks.

Part of what Biden said in the remarks on which the Republicans have fallen on was that, in the event of an international crisis in the first phase of his presidency, the fact that Obama has a “spine of steel” would become apparent.

While this may have been a selling point against the McCain-Palin point that harps on about Obama being willing to have “unconditional” engagements with hostile regimes, it is also a reminder that McCain-Palin promise a tough line in foreign policy, McCain’s “league of democracy” against the rest of the world, a confrontational, hard-line approach against all enemies and rivals.

The fact is that even if McCain manages to reverse Obama’s current nine/10/14 point national lead (pick your favourite poll, but none now has McCain in the lead) and in less than 11 days, win the White House, he would have his vulnerabilities too – precisely those of his age and health, and the fact that, should he longer be able to carry out his duties, the Oval Office would be occupied by Palin.

Hence the risk of backfire of the anti-Obama message, that similar arguments could be raised to portray a McCain-Palin White House as one that would have weaknesses open to exploitation.

And, as mentioned, Al-Qaeda terrorists have struck against the US and its allies irrespective of the party affiliation of the president, and with no heed to how many states are coloured blue or red.

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