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November 04, 2008

What I Told The Singaporeans About Obama and McCain

On Monday, I and an ally gave 10-minute speeches to an audience at a Singapore public library against two McCain speakers. I'm really happy about how it went -- the kids were nodding throughout my speech and looking kind of skeptically at the McCain people. I took foreign policy and the financial crisis, leaving other domestic stuff to my partner. Here's what I said.

To better understand how Barack Obama and John McCain would use the awesome power of the American presidency, we should look back at their judgment on the most significant and fateful foreign policy decision of our time -- the decision to start the Iraq War.

By now, a large majority of Americans realize that going to war was a bad decision. The Iraq War has killed over 4,000 Americans, more than Osama Bin Laden killed on September 11. The total cost to America comes to around $3 trillion. Violence in the wake of the war has forced over four million Iraqis to flee their homes, and killed tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Iraqi civilians.

It's a war that Barack Obama opposed from the beginning, understanding that the costs of occupying the country would be tremendous. And it's a war that John McCain supported from the beginning, largely because he made no effort to understand the region he'd be invading. This issue, like many others, shows the difference between Obama's foresight and McCain's failure to understand the world. Barack Obama will achieve our national goals peacefully whenever possible, while McCain is likely to drag America into more foolish wars.

Six years ago, in the same hour that President Bush and Congress announced an agreement on the resolution to invade Iraq, Obama gave a speech opposing the war. He explained three things he knew about Iraq. These are things that most Americans know today, and that most of us wish with all our hearts that our leaders had known six years ago.

The first of these things was "that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history."

Obama was exactly right. The efforts of the international community were successfully keeping Saddam Hussein from developing his army or having nuclear weapons. Saddam wasn't involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. It would've been simple to contain him using peaceful means, and save our resources for going after Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

To understand how big a point this is in Obama's favor, consider the political climate in America at the time. It was barely a year after the 9/11 attacks, and the Bush Administration was using all its power to mislead America about weapons of mass destruction and terrify everyone into supporting the war. Half of the Democrats in the Senate were frightened into supporting the Iraq War. Obama, however, didn't panic. He correctly evaluated the situation and opposed a war that has cost so much in money and blood. That's the sort of leader that I want guiding my country.

Here's the second thing Obama said, and it's the one I want to focus on the most: "I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences."

At the time, many Americans thought the occupation would be easy, because that's what our Republican leadership told them. In 2003, John McCain said, "There’s no doubt in my mind that once these people are gone, we will be welcomed as liberators." His prediction was disastrously wrong. Instead of being welcomed as liberators, Americans found themselves in the middle of a civil war between Sunni and Shia muslims. 89% of the US military deaths in Iraq came after the capture of Saddam.

Why was McCain so wrong about how the occupation would go? Partly because of complete ignorance about the area he wanted to invade. In 2003, McCain rejected the idea that religious strife would make the occupation difficult, saying "There's not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias. So I think they can probably get along." Just twenty years before, Sunni-led Iraq and Shiite Iran were locked in a brutal war that killed half a million people.

During the occupation of Iraq, the violence between Sunni and Shia in Iraq was horrific. The reporter Dexter Filkins has described how you could tell whether a dead Iraqi was a Sunni or a Shia. If he had no head, he was probably a Shia killed by Sunnis, because Sunni extremists preferred to behead their victims. But if his body was full of holes, he was probably a Sunni killed by the Shia, since Shia militiamen preferred to torture their victims before they died with electric drills. These, again, are the people that John McCain said would "probably get along."

With McCain's penchant for militarism and his poor understanding of the world, he's very likely to start foolish wars. Who knows how many American soldiers or foreign civilians will die for no good reason under a McCain administration, because McCain attacked some other country without understanding the consequences?

I should add that this situation becomes absolutely ludicrous if Sarah Palin, who has referred to the Iraq War as "part of God's plan" and a "task from God", becomes president. She hadn't travelled outside North America until last year, and has very little knowledge of foreign policy beyond the ability to read notes given to her by John McCain's staff, sometimes while winking at the camera. This is not the kind of person who should be given command of the most powerful military in the world.

Let's look at something else that Obama pointed out -- the immense financial cost of the occupation. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that when you include additional costs like damage to military equipment and treating disabled soldiers for the rest of their lives, the total cost of the Iraq War comes to $3 trillion. This is enough money to buy every household in America a new Toyota Prius. It's enough to buy everything on the Japanese stock market. It's enough to buy 2 iPhones for every human being on earth. Because of John McCain and the Republicans, we wasted it on getting our soldiers and lots of Iraqis killed.

Now for the third thing Obama said: "I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaeda." American intelligence agencies now agree with Obama. As a National Intelligence Estimate from 2006 claims, the Iraq War has made the overall terrorism problem worse, providing new recruits for violent Islamic movements. At the same time, it put our soldiers exactly where these recruits could blow them up.

McCain's supporters often talk about his greater experience. But the point of having experience is that it'll help you make better decisions. And McCain made an absolutely catastrophic decision on the greatest foreign policy question of our time. Obama, meanwhile, had the good judgment necessary to make the right decision. And that's why I want him running our country.

McCain's foreign policy incompetence has continued. When asked about Iran policy, he started singing an old Beach Boys song, replacing the lyrics with "Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran." He still is confused about which Muslim groups are Sunni and which are Shiite. His resistance to diplomacy is so strong that he refused to commit to a meeting with the president of our NATO ally Spain.

Meanwhile, Obama has been producing well-thought out solutions to America's problems. He wants us to gradually withdraw troops from Iraq and send some of them to defeat Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban in Afghanistan. One of my favorite Obama proposals was a bill that allocated money to buy heavy conventional weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles that could shoot down jet planes, off the international black market, so that they won't be available to terrorists. Obama's bill passed the Senate last year.

Before I close, I want to address another crisis situation -- the financial crisis we're facing right now. Several decades of deregulation in America allowed large banks to engage in very risky deals. Now, with the banking system weakened, there's the danger of a credit freeze where businesses could fail because banks are afraid to risk failure by making any more loans.

Barack Obama and the leaders of the Democratic Party found the solution early on in the process: give the banks money in exchange for their stock. It's a deal that could make lots of money for taxpayers, since bank stocks are very cheap now and may go up over the next several years. Recently, Gordon Brown in the UK took exactly this solution. US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, despite being a Republican who initially objected to this idea on ideological grounds, has now realized that it's the only solution.

On the other hand, we have John McCain, who was officially criticized by the Senate 20 years ago for taking $112,000 in contributions from a corrupt banker, and then intimidating regulators so they wouldn't investigate the banker for fraud. (The banker was eventually sent to prison for five years, and the failure of the bank cost the government $3 billion.)

Rather than seek to understand the crisis and how to fix it, McCain has just offered a bunch of ideas that help his campaign contributors without addressing the crisis. He's proposed buying up the banks' bad mortgage investments at full value, rewarding longtime Republican contributors in the financial industry by giving them extra taxpayer money. He's also proposed reducing taxes on investment profits for the next two years. This doesn't do anything to alleviate the immediate crisis -- failing banks don't have net investment profits. It only helps rich people who have lots of old stock gains that they can cash in.

None of us can tell what new crises America will face in the next four years. But I'm convinced that Obama's ability to understand situations and propose the right policies is far superior to John McCain's. And that's one of the many reasons I'm happy to support him for president.

November 4, 2008 | Permalink


Weird--sometimes the automatic forwarding doesn't work...

Posted by: TJ | Dec 29, 2008 2:15:58 PM

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