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Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008

Election should settle the war question

LOS ANGELES — The current race for the White House might just prove to be a great clarifier on the Iraq war. This is undoubtedly the high-profile foreign-policy problem that the world would like our electoral system to resolve decisively.

At the moment, the three leading candidates to succeed George W. Bush each have separate and distinct positions on the war. Sen. John McCain, who just creamed his Republican opponents in the Florida primary, 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 on this or any gut-felt war deserves a measure of respect, even if we disagree with it. At least he is not vague and dithering and deceptively ambiguous.

One hundred and eighty degrees in the other direction is Sen. Barack Obama's view. He would evidently start withdrawing troops immediately. As Caroline Kennedy — daughter of John F. Kennedy — pointedly noted in a high-profile New York Times op-ed Sunday, 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 Hillary Clinton. The wife of the former president bobs somewhere between McCain and Obama, as if trying to keep her balance. 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 U.S. suddenly seems to be "winning" (whatever that might mean).

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

During the last presidential election, some of us (wrongly) hoped that the war blunder would block a second Bush term. But Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry "Hillary-Clintoned" the issue to a point where he lost his cutting edge. More than a year ago, however, the American people (judging from all the exit-polling that was done) weighed in against the war by returning Congress to Democratic control. Now we have a presidential campaign that may well give the American voter a similar opportunity.

If America begins an Obama-lead withdrawal, there will be a widespread sigh of relief worldwide. If it digs in for a longer haul, as per McCain, at least the world will know where America's head is.

McCain seems, to a lot of Americans, to possess uncommon integrity. But it is sad that prolonging our stay with Iraq appears to be such a matter of principle for McCain. I know his election would disappoint many of our friends around the world. One 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 U.N. 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 powerfully in his provocative new book, recently released in America: "The need to develop a better understanding of our world has never been greater. But it is clear that the worldviews of the leading Western minds are trapped in the previous centuries. These minds cannot even conceive of the possibility that they may have to change these worldviews to understand the new world. Unless they do, we could make disastrous decisions.

"The best illustration of a disastrous decision is the decision by the U.S. and (Britain) to invade Iraq in March 2003. 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 mind set. 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."

Mahbubani is right about the war, of course. But McCain, if elected, as I think is entirely possible, is not on Mahbubani's page about that topic. Thus it may well be that Asia (with most of the world's Muslims) and America may be destined for even further degrees of historic separation from each other. That would be a tragedy.

UCLA professor Tom Plate is a veteran journalist and author. Copyright 2008 Tom Plate

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