The Oct. 2 debate
between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden was disturbing
for those of us hoping for a more enlightened and honest foreign policy during
the next four years. In its aftermath, pundits mainly focused on Palin's failure
to self-destruct and Biden's relatively cogent arguments. Here's an annotation
of the foreign policy issues raised during the vice-presidential debate, which
was packed with demonstrably false and misleading statements.
Getting the Facts Wrong on Iraq
Palin: "I am very thankful that we do
have a good plan and the surge and the counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq that
has proven to work
You guys opposed the surge. The surge worked. Barack Obama
still can't admit the surge works."
Obama actually has claimed that the surge worked. This makes both Obama and
Palin wrong, however. The decline in violence in Iraq in recent months has
largely resulted from a shift in the alignment of internal Iraqi forces and
the tragic de facto partitioning of Baghdad into sectarian enclaves.
What's more, the current relative equilibrium is probably temporary. The decision
by certain Sunni tribal militias that had been battling U.S. forces to turn
their weapons against al-Qaeda-related extremists took place before the surge
was even announced. Similarly, militant opposition leader Moqtada al-Sadr's
unilateral ceasefire resulted from internal Shia politics rather than any U.S.
Palin: "And with the surge that has worked we're now down to
pre-surge numbers in Iraq."
This is completely untrue. Prior to the "surge" in January 2007,
the United States had approximately 132,000 troops in Iraq. Currently, there
are 146,000 troops in Iraq This is less than at the surge's peak, but the decline
had to do with the fact that U.S. forces could not be realistically maintained
at that level, not from a decision to pull down the number of forces because
of any success.
For no apparent reason, Biden didn't challenge Palin on this clear misstatement.
Biden: "With regard to Iraq, I gave the president the power
[in the October 2002 Iraq War Resolution]. I voted for the power because he
said he needed it not to go to war but to keep the United States, the UN in
line, to keep sanctions on Iraq and not let them be lifted."
This was perhaps the most seriously misleading statement of the entire debate.
Palin correctly countered with the fact that "it was a war resolution."
Indeed, the resolution supported by Biden explicitly stated that "The
president is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he
determines to be necessary and appropriate." Biden certainly knew that.
It's also hard to imagine that Biden actually believed Bush's claim that it
was necessary to "keep sanctions on Iraq and not let them be lifted."
There was absolutely no serious effort in the UN or anywhere else at that time
to lift any sanctions against Iraq in a manner that could have conceivably
aided Iraq's ability to make war, develop "weapons of mass destruction,"
or in any other way strengthen Saddam Hussein's regime.
It's particularly disturbing that a man who may well be the next vice president
seems to think that the United States has the right to try to "to keep
the UN in line." The United States is legally bound by a signed and
ratified international treaty pursuant to Article VI of the U.S. Constitution
to provisions of the UN Charter. And the charter prohibits wars of aggression,
such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The UN's job is to keep nation-states in
line regarding international law, which the Iraq War made possible in part
through Biden's vote in support its authorization was one of the most serious
and blatant violations since the world body's establishment in 1945.
In any case, at the time of the Iraq War resolution, the UN had for well over
a decade imposed the most comprehensive disarmament regime in history and had
already successfully disarmed Iraq of its biological and chemical weapons;
its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs; and its long-range
delivery systems. Furthermore, at the time of the resolution and as a result
of pressure from the UN, Iraq had already agreed to the return of UN inspectors
under strict modalities guaranteeing unfettered access to confirm Iraq's disarmament.
As a result, Biden's belief that the United States had to "keep the UN
in line" is indicative of his contempt for the UN Charter and the post-World
War II international legal order, thereby raising serious questions regarding
Obama's judgment in choosing him as his running mate.
Palin: "I know that the other ticket
opposed funding for
our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan."
In reality, Biden has consistently supported unconditional funding for Bush's
war in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as evidence of torture, widespread killings
of civilians, the resulting insurgency, and other problems have become apparent.
Furthermore, as Biden pointed out, John McCain also voted against "funding
for our troops" when the appropriation was tied to certain conditions
he disliked. Similarly, Obama's votes against other appropriations bills were
because he had objections to certain provisions.
Palin: "We cannot afford to lose against al-Qaeda and the Shia
extremists who are still there, still fighting us, but we're getting closer
and closer to victory. And it would be a travesty if we quit now in Iraq."
There was no heavily-armed al-Qaeda or Shia extremists in Iraq until the Bush
administration backed by Senators McCain and Biden decided to invade that
country and overthrow Saddam Hussein, who had prevented such groups from emerging.
Prior to the invasion, authorities on Iraq repeatedly pointed out the possibility
of such extremists gaining influence in Iraq. If the Republicans were actually
concerned about the rise of such extremist groups, they would never have supported
the war in the first place. This is simply an excuse to defend the long-planned
indefinite occupation of Iraq to control its natural resources and maintain
a permanent U.S. military presence in this strategically important region.
Claims of being "closer and closer to victory" have been made by
Republican leaders ever since the initial invasion in March 2003, and it remains
doubtful whether a military victory can ever be achieved.
Palin: "Your plan is a white flag of surrender in Iraq and
that is not what our troops need to hear today, that's for sure. And it's not
what our nation needs to be able to count on."
As Biden pointed out, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has pushed for a withdrawal
plan that's essentially the same as Obama's. And public opinion polls show
that a majority of Americans including most U.S. troops currently in Iraq
prefer Obama's plan over McCain's open-ended indefinite commitment of U.S.
forces. And Obama's plan calls only for the redeployment of combat units, which
would not be completed until well into 2010.
Much to the disappointment of those in the antiwar movement, Obama's plan
also calls for maintaining thousands of other U.S. troops within the country
to ostensibly protect U.S. personnel, train Iraqi forces, and engage in counter-terrorism
operations. Furthermore, Obama's plan calls for stationing many tens of thousands
of U.S. forces in neighboring countries for possible short-term incursions
To claim that this is the same as "a white flag of surrender" is
demagoguery at its most extreme.
Biden: "But let's get straight who has been right and wrong:
John McCain was saying the Sunnis and Shias got along with each other without
reading the history of the last 700 years."
McCain was indeed wrong about many things in regard to Iraq, but the fact
is that Sunnis and Shias in Iraq largely did "get along" until
the U.S. invasion supported by Biden created the conditions that led to the
subsequent sectarian conflict. Saddam's secular regime did persecute the Shia,
but the widespread sectarian massacres of recent years were a direct consequence
of the divide-and-rule policies of the U.S. occupation. Prior to the U.S. invasion,
millions of Sunni and Shia Iraqis lived peacefully together in mixed neighborhoods,
intermarriage was common (particularly in urban areas), and many in rural areas
worshiped in the same mosques.
Furthermore, as with conflict in Northern Ireland, the inter-communal violence
in Iraq hasn't simply resulted from religious differences but has erupted over
perceived national loyalties, with the Sunnis traditionally identifying with
pan-Arabist nationalists and the U.S.-backed ruling Shia parties historically
allying with Iran.
Palin: "Israel is in jeopardy
of course when we're dealing with Ahmadinejad as a leader of Iran. Iran claiming
should be wiped off the face of the earth. Now a leader like
Ahmadinejad who is not sane or stable when he says things like that is not
one whom we can allow to acquire nuclear energy, nuclear weapons. Ahmadinejad
seek[s] to acquire nuclear weapons and wipe off the face of the earth an
ally like we have in Israel."
Ahmadinejad never said that "Israel should be wiped off the face of the
Earth." That idiom doesn't even exist in the Persian language. The Iranian
president was quoting the late Ayatollah Khomeini from more than 20 years earlier
when, in a statement largely ignored at the time, he said that "the regime
occupying Jerusalem should vanish from the pages of time." While certainly
an extreme and deplorable statement, the actual quote's emphasis on the Israeli
"regime" rather than the country itself and its use of an intransitive
verb makes the statement far less threatening than Palin was trying to make
it sound. As recently as the week before the debate, Ahmadinejad once again
clarified that the statement was analogous to the way that the Soviet Union
is today no longer on the map, emphasizing his desire for Israel's dissolution
as a state, not the country's physical destruction. Biden inexplicably refused
to challenge this apparently deliberate effort by Palin to make American viewers
believe Iran is a greater and more imminent threat than it actually is.
Palin's argument that nuclear energy is something the United States cannot
"allow [Iran] to acquire" was rather bizarre since Iran has had nuclear
power since the 1950s, as a result of a program initiated by the United States.
The United States continued to be the primary supporter for Iran's nuclear
program through the 1970s.
Finally, as Biden observed, Ahmadinejad doesn't control Iran's security apparatus.
Unlike in the United States, the Iranian president isn't the commander-in-chief
of the armed forces. Such responsibilities lie with the supreme leader, currently
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, the Iranian presidency is relatively weak compared
with other centers of power in that regime.
Palin: "Ahmadinejad, Kim Jong Il, the Castro brothers, others
who are dangerous dictators are ones that Barack Obama has said he would be
willing to meet without preconditions being met first. And an issue like that
taken up by a presidential candidate goes beyond naiveté and goes beyond
poor judgment. A statement that he made like that is downright dangerous.
dictators who hate America and hate what we stand for, with our freedoms, our
democracy, our tolerance, our respect for women's rights, those who would try
to destroy what we stand for cannot be met with just sitting down on a presidential
level as Barack Obama had said he would be willing to do. That is beyond bad
judgment. That is dangerous.
But diplomacy is hard work by serious people.
It's lining out clear objectives and having your friends and your allies ready
to back you up there and have sanctions lined up before any kind of presidential
summit would take place."
As Biden observed, Obama never said he would meet with Ahmadinejad, but with
Iranian leaders, presumably those with more power and less extremist views
than the Iranian president. And, for reasons mentioned above, while Ahmadinejad
is part of an oppressive, authoritarian regime, he is not, strictly speaking,
Secondly, if it is really poor judgment and "downright dangerous"
to meet with dictators without preconditions, why hasn't Palin ever taken issue
with decisions by such former Republican presidents as Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford,
Reagan, and Bush, who met with dictators who were as bad or worse than the
ones she mentioned and did so without self-defeating preconditions like those
demanded by the current administration and by McCain? Indeed, President Bush
himself has met with the king of Saudi Arabia, whose regime is far more repressive
in terms of freedom, democracy, tolerance, and women's rights than Castro's
Cuba: the rights of women under Castro have improved greatly relative to previous
Cuban regimes, while the U.S.-backed family dictatorship in Saudi Arabia remains
the most reactionary and misogynist regime on the planet; religious tolerance
is Cuba is far greater than in Saudi Arabia, where non-Muslims are forbidden
to worship openly; and, while individual freedom and electoral democracy is
certainly quite limited in Cuba, that country still compares favorably to Saudi
Finally, Palin's insistence that the goal of the Cuban, North Korean, and
Iranian regimes is to "destroy" America's freedom, democracy, tolerance,
and respect for women's rights is completely inaccurate and ahistorical. The
anti-Americanism of these regimes is rooted not in opposition to America's
values, but U.S. militarism and intervention in relation to those countries,
which were taken not in defense of freedom and democracy, but in support for
previous Cuban, Korean, and Iranian dictatorships. Biden, however, didn't challenge
Palin on this simplistic distortion.
Israel and Its Neighbors
Biden: "Here's what the president
[Bush] said when we said no. He insisted on elections on the West Bank, when
I said, and others said, and Barack Obama said, 'Big mistake. Hamas will win.
You'll legitimize them.' What happened? Hamas won."
Biden's position of opposing democratic elections in Arab countries is quite
disturbing and represents a significant step back from the Bush administration's
limited support for such elections. The lesson that should have been learned
from Hamas' victory in the January 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections
isn't that the United States should oppose free elections. Instead, Biden should
have recognized that Hamas' victory came about as a direct result of U.S. policies,
supported by Biden, that have provided Israeli occupation forces with the sufficient
military, financial, and diplomatic support to engage in its ongoing repression
and colonization in the Palestinian West Bank. It's such policies that led
to the rise of this radical Islamist group, which did not even exist until
after a quarter century of U.S.-backed Israeli occupation and the failure of
the United States to move the peace process forward in a manner that could
have provided the Palestinians with any realistic hope that a viable Palestinian
state would result.
Failure to prevent the Palestinian government from allowing all major Palestinian
political parties from participating in a parliamentary election doesn't "legitimize"
Hamas. Unfortunately, Hamas was already seen as legitimate by the plurality
of Palestinian voters who gave them their parliamentary majority.
Palin: "We will support Israel[,]
this peace-seeking nation,
and they have a track record of being able to forge these peace agreements.
They succeeded with Egypt. I'm sure that we're going to see more success there,
Israel "succeeded" in its peace agreement with Egypt because, under
pressure from the Carter administration, the Israeli government agreed to withdraw
from all Egyptian territory captured in the 1967 war. By contrast, Israel
with the support of the Bush administration as well as Senators McCain and
Biden has refused to consider a complete withdrawal from Palestinian and
Syrian territory despite assurances by Syrian, Palestinian, and other Arab
leaders of full diplomatic relations and strict security guarantees in return.
The refusal of Israel to agree to a complete withdrawal from these occupied
territories even with minor and reciprocal border adjustments as called
for in a series of landmark UN Security Council resolutions and by virtually
the entire international community, raises serious questions regarding Palin's
characterization of Israel as a "peace-seeking" nation.
Biden: "When [in 2006]
along with France, we kicked Hezbollah
out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, 'Move NATO forces in there. Fill the
if you don't, Hezbollah will control it.' Now what's happened?
Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately
to the north of Israel."
Neither France nor the United States "kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon."
France was the primary supporter of the August 2006 UN Security Council resolution
initially opposed by the United States because it wanted the devastating
war to continue in the hopes of a more clear-cut Israeli victory which required
forces of Hezbollah's armed militia to withdraw from areas south of the Litani
River, located about 20 miles north of the Israeli border. Hezbollah forces
withdrew and UN peacekeeping forces have moved into the area. (These forces
include troops from NATO countries, but aren't part of a NATO operation, which
would have likely been unnecessarily provocative in a region that had suffered
under the colonial rule of three NATO countries.) There's no "vacuum"
in the southernmost parts of Lebanon where the UN peacekeeping forces are stationed,
and Hezbollah does not "control it."
In any case, there was never a serious attempt to kick Hezbollah which is
one of Lebanon's largest political parties, not simply an armed militia out
of Lebanon as a whole.
Furthermore Hezbollah was already "a legitimate part of the government"
of Lebanon during the time period referred to by Biden; the Lebanese government
at that time included one Hezbollah cabinet member and a second cabinet minister
of an allied party. It's not "what's happened" subsequent to the
alleged failures of the Bush administration to push for the deployment of NATO
forces, as Biden claimed. Biden actually knows this: he was a cosponsor of
a Senate resolution in July 2006 that included the clause, "the Government
of Lebanon, which includes representatives of Hezbollah
proxies now have a major stake in Lebanon,
as well as in the Gaza Strip with Hamas."
Neither the Palestinian Hamas nor the Lebanese Hezbollah are "proxies"
Hamas evolved out of the Muslim Brotherhood, a Sunni movement that came into
being decades before the Iranian revolution and that has had no significant
ties with Iran. From Hamas' founding in the early 1980s until just a few years
ago, this Palestinian Islamist group's primary outside funding came from Saudi
Arabia and other Arab monarchies in the Gulf region that have traditionally
been hostile to Iran. Since the U.S-led international sanctions against the
Hamas-led branch of the Palestine Authority was launched in early 2006, Iran
has contributed funds to help keep the government functioning, but this does
not make Hamas an Iranian "proxy."
By contrast, Iran played a significant role in the establishment of Hezbollah
as an armed resistance movement against the Israeli occupation of southern
Lebanon in the mid-1980s, and Iran has provided some funding and armaments
for the militia. However, Hezbollah has long evolved into a populist political
party with substantial support from Lebanon's Shi'ite population the country's
largest community and follows its own agenda.
Afghanistan and Pakistan
Palin: "Barack Obama had said
that all we're doing in Afghanistan is air-raiding villages and killing civilians.
And such a reckless, reckless comment and untrue comment, again, hurts our
Obama never said that that is "all we're doing in Afghanistan."
Furthermore, it's well-documented by the Afghan government, independent journalists,
reputable human rights groups, and even the U.S. military itself that U.S.
air strikes on Afghan villages have killed civilians. Indeed, the civilian
death toll is in the thousands and has been a major contributing factor in
losing the hearts and minds of the Afghan population, particularly in the countryside.
Strangely, however, Biden refused to defend Obama on this point.
Biden: "There have been 7,000 madrassas built along that [Afghan-Pakistani]
border. We should be helping them build schools to compete for those hearts
and minds of the people in the region so that we're actually able to take on
A madrassa is a school. Most madrassas offer a general education with a special
emphasis on Islamic principles. Only a small minority are affiliated with reactionary
strains of Islam that preach the kind of doctrine that rationalizes terrorism.
Biden's comment simply reinforces Islamophobic bigotry.
It's also important to note that most of the extremist madrassas in that area
were started in the 1980s when the United States in a policy Biden supported
armed and financed hard-line fundamentalist mujahedeen fighters based in
that border region who were then engaged in a war against the Communist regime
and its Soviet backers then in power in Afghanistan.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in