Thursday, April 3, 2008

Give the Reins to McCain?

As an American living in Taiwan, I’m made aware every day how deep and pervasive cultural difference can be. Having been here for quite awhile, I’m now watching my third U.S. presidential race unfold from across the Pacific, assessing the candidates both as an American and as someone who hears how their words echo in this particular corner of Asia. Following American politics from a foreign country always gives a slightly different perspective.

Over the years I've usually supported the Democrats. I know that in the U.S. Democrats are sometimes blamed for being too concerned about respecting foreign cultures, too “sensitive” to cultural difference. Those who raise such criticisms want to imply that Democrats are more worried about offending foreign sensibilities than they are about defending America: i.e., they are unpatriotic. But given our globalized world, I know attention to such cultural issues should be understood in another way: it is not a matter of political correctness, but rather of hard political realism.

With the Republicans the opposite seems true. They and their leaders seem not the least worried if they know little or nothing about the world they have to deal with.

Enter John McCain and the war on terror. Several times during his recent visit to Jordan, McCain spoke bizarrely about concerns that the Iranian government was “training al Qaeda in Iraq.” Such statements are bizarre because they are sheer nonsense: everyone knows al Qaeda is a Sunni organization, whereas the Iranians are backing the Shiite forces in Iraq.

Nonetheless it was not merely a “senior moment” for the Republican candidate: McCain made his statement several times.

At a news conference in Amman, he said Iranians were “taking al Qaeda into Iran, training them and sending them back.” Asked about his words later, he basically repeated them: “Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate.”

What is unfortunate is that Americans don’t seem to recognize what a boneheaded mistake this is. If they did, they’d be thinking twice about putting McCain in the White House--a White House, by the way, that got us into our current can of worms precisely because of its willful ignorance of the religious differences that make a country like Iraq such a powder keg.

Consider: Any nation that might want to fight in or occupy such a country, any nation that plans to put its own young men and women on the front lines there, simply cannot afford to misunderstand such basic facts. Taking the time to understand such deeply rooted religious conflicts in a country one plans to democratize is not a matter of being too “sensitive” or “politically correct.” Rather it is a matter of the utmost military importance.

The Bush administration ignored such ethnic issues at the beginning of its Iraqi adventure, and now McCain is taking up the task of ignoring them again.

McCain only corrected his howler when Joe Lieberman, traveling with him, leaned over and whispered a correction in his ear. I guess Lieberman must have been embarrassed at how stupid Americans look making such statements in a Middle Eastern capital.

I don't know about other Americans, but I for one am sick to death of listening to Republican so-called leaders who can’t distinguish between Shia and Sunni. This is a basic fact of dealing with the Muslim world, and if a man who wants to be our next president can’t keep such basic facts in mind, then he can’t be trusted to oversee anything like a “war on terror.” Much less can he be trusted to manage the diplomacy we will need to keep the Iraqi mess from spreading elsewhere once we, inevitably, begin to draw down troop numbers.

After how many years of this war, and the Republican nominee John McCain still can’t keep the forces straight? And he wants to be in the White House? Imagine if a U.S. presidential contender running during World War II had mixed up Italy and Germany: “I intend to keep fighting until our troops have captured Rome, the German capital!”

Would such a candidate have been judged fit to manage the war against fascism in Europe? Is it any surprise, given the Republican indifference to geographical and cultural facts, that we've botched the occupation of Iraq?

The Manhattan Reichstag Review

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