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Election 2008 The World is Watching

Blog Discussion

Bloggers from Iran, Pakistan, respond to U.S. Debate

Fighting a 21st century war, different approaches to Pakistan, and China rising

BY FRONTLINE/World EditorsSeptember 29, 2008

Editor's Note:
In last Friday's first presidential debate, Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama squared off over the financial crisis and how they would handle inevitable foreign policy issues as the next U.S. president. For an international perspective, we asked a number of international bloggers, journalists, and scholars for their views on the debate and how the candidates' positions directly affect their own countries. Here's the first selection of comments from Iran, Pakistan, and China. We'd also like to hear what you think about how the next administration should be engaging the rest of the world. So feel free to agree or disagree with what you read here and post your comments below.

IRAN

Iranian-born Omid Memarian is a journalist and commentator and currently a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has published op-ed pieces in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The San Francisco Chronicle. You can read his blog at omidmermarian. blogspot.com

FRONLTINE/World: What is the most important foreign policy issue facing the next U.S president? And do McCain or Obama have the right policies to tackle this?
Omid Memarian: Restoring its credibility and moral authority in the world should be the centerpiece of the United States' foreign policy. This can happen if the U.S. employs multilateral instead of unilateral mechanisms to solve international crises. In the post 9/11 world; global leadership needs a horizontal structure, not a vertical one. During the debate McCain assumed an arrogant, irresponsible tone that belonged to the Vietnam era when he talked about Iran, Russia and Iraq.

McCain assumed an arrogant, irresponsible tone that belonged to the Vietnam era when he talked about Iran, Russia and Iraq.

Obama, on the other hand, seems to speak of other nations with respect. He talks about negotiating with U.S. adversaries by initiating tough diplomacy. This is a central component of "soft politics", which has proven to be more effective than the "hard politics" of force, fear and fury.

How do you feel Obama and McCain addressed the problems facing Iran?
McCain's understanding about the Middle East is outdated. He is admirable as a war hero, but his solutions to solve the foreign policy issues do not appeal to many other countries in the world.

McCain looks at enemies as if we were still in the Cold War, when, in reality, the nature of enemies in the 21st century has totally changed and demand new policies and approaches.

McCain and Obama on Iran

How should the next U.S. president deal with the threat of Iran's nuclear program?
The U.S. should talk extensively to Iran and craft a deal that is mutually acceptable. Iranians have indicated that they want such a deal, and they have cooperated on several occasions with Americans in the region. As long as the U.S. threatens Iran with attacks, Iranians will follow their nuclear program.

As long as the U.S. threatens Iran with attacks, Iranians will follow their nuclear program.

How should the next administration approach Iran's increasing influence in Iraq?
Iran's influence in the Middle East could be balanced if the United States were to leave Iraq on a reasonable, responsible timetable designed by all the parties in the region, including Iran. Iranians feel threatened by America's aggressive presence there. For an Iranian leader, negotiation is not a matter of ideological attachments.

Iran has been helping the Iraqi government enhance security in Iraq over the past months. If the surge in Iraq has been a success, as McCain said in the debate, it's because of Iran's intense control over Iraq's borders and Iran's influence over the Shiite militia. It does not want an unsecured Iraq on its western border. This could destabilize its western provinces like Azerbaijan and Kurdistan.

Given what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the growth of fundamentalism and Jihadist groups, Iran could play a significant role in the war against terror, with its strong socioeconomic structure and highly educated population. It might seem like a far cry from current foreign policy, but the U.S. must look at Iran as a partner, not an enemy. it must look to the future not the past.

Were there important global security issues that did not come up during the debate that should have?
The U.S and other countries are under the imminent threat of micro-terrorism conducted not by hostile states but by non-state actors and ideological groups with strong beliefs on how to change the current global order. These are the groups that can carry a nuclear bomb in a suitcase to the United States and do something catastrophic without the involvement of any country.

As one of the pillars of democracy, the media has not been able to tell the American people that there will be no victory in Iraq.

In the era of "new wars," the U.S. needs to reframe its perception of friend and foe if it wants to strengthen its position in the global war on terror. For example, recruiting Iran and Syria to be on America's side in the war against terrorism is such a step. America should look at forming coalitions with a long-term view. Should it compromise? Of course!

What does this first debate and the campaign in general say to you about American democracy at work?
Regarding the numbers and outcomes of the polls, it seems that American society is not in favor of a solution-based discourse. The debate reminds me of Hollywood. They are the people who admire Batman, Hancock, Superman and Spiderman and seem to like leaders who rely on their muscles and power instead of their minds. Instead of looking at politics as a chess game, they look at it as a boxing match.

As one of the pillars of democracy, mainstream U.S. media has not focused on the issues. For example, it has not been able to tell the American people that there will be no victory in Iraq. Sooner or later, the U.S. must leave Iraq and control the damage of an unjustifiable war, but even talking about it in terms of a victory is an insult to hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost for nothing.

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PAKISTAN

Arif Rafiq is the editor of "The Pakistan Policy Blog." He has written op-eds for a number of publications, including The Baltimore Sun, The Daily Star (Lebanon), The Daily Times (Pakistan), The Miami Herald, and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

With permission, we have excerpted below Rafiq's own blog reaction to the first U.S. presidential debate, "Obama and McCain Equally Mediocre on Pakistan"

Pakistan, arguably the most important U.S. foreign policy issue right now, took up a few minutes in last night's 90-minute presidential debate.

In short, the discussion lacked substance. It was mostly a regurgitation of dated talking points from last year's party debates. As such, the brief exchange confirmed the pre-existing positions of both candidates on U.S.-Pakistan relations.

In short, the discussion lacked substance. It was mostly a regurgitation of dated talking points from last year's party debates.

But much has changed in Pakistan since last year. The situation in Pakistan is so volatile that each week brings ground-changing developments. And so it is worrisome that both Barack Obama and John McCain have clearly not adapted their positions since the primaries.

Obama Good for Civilians, Bad for Military
Obama's support for Pakistan's fledgling democracy and appropriation of the Biden [Lugar] plan, which calls for vastly increasing development aid, is excellent. It is an integral part of a transition toward a full-fledged Pakistan policy.

But Obama seems unaware of the clear and present economic danger in Pakistan. The Biden-Lugar bill will not be passed till next year. And it will take time for funds to trickle into the country. Meanwhile, more and more Pakistanis go hungry. Pakistan's foreign exchange reserves are dwindling, its rupee is plummeting in value, and inflation is dangerously high.

If Obama were truly serious about Pakistan, he would have commented on the new Friends of Pakistan initiative -- a coordinating body of Pakistan donors, including the G-7, China, and Saudi Arabia that had its first meeting on Friday. He would have offered specific ways the United States could help Pakistan now, in this great time of need.

Obama and McCain on Pakistan and Afghanistan

Furthermore, Obama still finds it necessary to compare his "Pakistan policy" to the Bush administration's old "Musharraf policy." With Musharraf out of the scene, after an OK from the Bush administration, this is an antiquated talking point. It's a different ball game. No need to talk about the past.

Also, Obama seems to be unaware of the failures of Pakistan's fledgling civilian government. Zardari has concentrated power in his own hands. His style of governance (he's effectively governed the country, at least partially, since February) has focused on dividing and conquering opponents and deferring major issues (such as the judges' restoration and parliamentary debate on the war on terror). On this, Obama is silent.

Obama is most known in Pakistan for his call to go after high-value Al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, if Islamabad is unwilling or incapable to do so. Pakistanis abhor this policy.

Obama is most known in Pakistan for his call to go after high-value Al Qaeda and Taliban targets inside Pakistan, if Islamabad is unwilling or incapable to do so. Pakistanis abhor this policy. Obama's statements contradict his supposition that America's standing in the world is important to U.S. national security and needs to be improved. Not only does this policy hurt U.S. relations with the Pakistani public -- 165 million strong it is -- it also alienates Pakistan's military. And the worst thing Washington can do right now is pit Pakistani institutions against one another and push away Pakistan's military -- especially when they are essential for security purposes.

At this point, it seems as if Obama would not bode well for U.S.-Pakistan military ties, which have already deteriorated considerably. And it is imperative that these ties improve. Plus, a pincer attack on the Pakistani military would destabilize Pakistan, compelling the military to intervene or leading to the decay of its security apparatus.

McCain Good for Military, Bad for Civilians
McCain has yet to really come to terms with the existence of a civil, democratic government in Pakistan. He fails to include Pakistan in his proposed League of Democracies. He seems in denial -- or his talking points have yet to be updated.

While Obama would likely develop stronger relations with Pakistan's civilian government, McCain seems like he would strengthen ties with Pakistan's military. Pakistan's military has been and will for the near to midterm be a major power broker in Pakistan. It is obviously essential to resolving Pakistan's security challenges. But ties between the U.S. and Pakistani military have deteriorated considerably in recent months. [Meanwhile, Pakistan's army chief has just completed a five-day visit to China, where he will be shown "the money."]

McCain was right to criticize Obama's idea of unilaterally striking high-value targets in Pakistan. Though Obama's idea is consistent with Bush administration policy, as I have stated earlier, it does not make it right. McCain smartly noted that even if something like that has to be done, you'd don't announce it publicly -- especially when you are violating the sovereignty of an ally!

Neither of the candidates nor most in the U.S. policy community truly understands the comprehensive failure that is Afghanistan.

"McBama," Good for Comprehensive U.S.-Pakistan Relations
Neither of the candidates nor most in the U.S. policy community truly understands the comprehensive failure that is Afghanistan. Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan, the country is expected to face a major food shortage this winter. Karzai, once seen as a saint among sinners, is becoming a typical corrupt third world dictator. His curbs on the media, dancing with war lords, drug-dealing brother, and bribe-taking office have made him not only impotent, but hated.

Obama is right to tell Karzai to shape up, but it is also necessary to bring more Afghan power brokers (i.e. war lords) to the table, and, God forbid, think of a U.S. exit strategy. These are the tough issues that will have to be dealt with after the election.

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Kalsoom Lakhani is from Islamabad. She runs the popular Pakistan blog, CHUP, or Changing Up Pakistan, which aims to raise awareness on the issues currently affecting Pakistan.

FRONTLINE/World: What is the most important foreign policy issue facing the next U.S president? And do McCain or Obama have the right policies to tackle this?
Kalsoom Lakhani: I think the shift of the war's focus from Iraq to Afghanistan will be the most important foreign policy issue facing the next U.S. president. As a result, Pakistan will certainly be the biggest strategic concern.

How do you feel Obama and McCain addressed the issues facing Pakistan?
I blogged about it right after the debate, and this is what I wrote: "At the peripheral level, John McCain took a much softer approach on Pakistan, emphasizing that aggressive statements about U.S. attacks against Pakistan are counter-productive and risk alienating the Pakistani population and government. He spent the majority of the time criticizing Obama's "hawkish" stance on the country. Barack Obama reiterated his previous stance, asserting that if Pakistan wouldn't go after Al Qaeda and Taliban militants, and if the (militants) were in sight, the U.S. military would take them out.

Regardless of political posturing, the U.S. will always act according to its national security interests. If Coalition forces are being killed by militants in cross-border attacks, it inherently threatens U.S. security; that would be true for any country. The difference in this presidential election is that Obama openly acknowledges this reality, while McCain merely chooses to equate it to an attack on Pakistani sovereignty.

How would you feel about the next president continuing covert actions inside Pakistan to hunt down al Qaeda or the Taliban?
How any Pakistani would feel -- outraged and frustrated. The U.S. should have learned its lesson during the past five years in Iraq and Afghanistan -- in order to win "hearts and minds" in the Islamic world, tangible military victories are not the only answer. The primary battleground is ideological. If the U.S. continues covert actions in Pakistan, violating Pakistani sovereignty, it risks further exacerbating anti-U.S. sentiment and increasing sympathy for militants.

The U.S. should recognize the efforts of the Pakistani military in the Swat and Bajaur regions -- many Pakistani soldiers have been killed in these operations.

How should the increasing power of Islamic militants both in the frontier region and the country at large be handled?
It should be handled by the Pakistani military and the Pakistani government. Although the government has been inefficient in dealing with this threat in the past, they have indicated a new resolve to work with the military to counter militancy in the frontier areas. This has to be seen as Pakistan's war, because the increasing power of these militants can only be countered if the Pakistani people are against it. In the past, many people did not cooperate because it was perceived as the American war on terror. However, with several recent high-profile attacks on Pakistani civilians, many Pakistanis are increasingly viewing this as "our war."

How should the next U.S. president engage with the Pakistani Army, a historically powerful institution, in fighting terrorism and maintaining stability in the country?
I think there should be a transparency between U.S. and Pakistani forces and a sense of cooperation. The U.S. should also recognize the efforts of the Pakistani military in the Swat and Bajaur regions -- many Pakistani soldiers have been killed in these operations.

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CHINA

Xiao Qiang is director of the China Internet Project and an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times.

FRONTLINE/World:How do you feel Obama and McCain addressed the issues facing China?
Xiao Qiang:The word "China" was only mentioned a few times during the entire debate, even though how to face China's rise is a long term, fundamental challenge for the U.S. -- not just for the next president, but throughout the 21st century and beyond.

While talking about domestic economic issues, Sen. McCain said: "One of the major reasons why we're in the difficulties we are in today is because spending got out of control. We owe China $500 billion." He wanted to emphasize his position on reducing and eliminating "unnecessary and wasteful spending."

The word "China" was only mentioned a few times during the entire debate, even though how to face China's rise is a long term, fundamental challenge for the U.S.

Sen. Obama referred to China twice during the foreign policy section. When answering the question of how to handle Iran, he said: "I do not agree with McCain that we're going to be able to execute the kind of sanctions we need without some cooperation with some countries like Russia and China that are, I think Senator McCain would agree, not democracies, but have extensive trade with Iran but potentially have an interest in making sure Iran doesn't have a nuclear weapon."

Toward the end of the debate, Obama again acknowledged the importance of the challenge of China's rise to U.S. national interests when he criticized Bush and McCain's foreign policy approach for focusing too much on Iraq. He said: "We've got challenges, for example, with China, where we are borrowing billions of dollars. They now hold a trillion dollars' worth of our debt. And they are active... in regions like Latin America, and Asia, and Africa. The conspicuousness of their presence is only matched by our absence, because we've been focused on Iraq."

What should the next president do to influence China to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? And how should the Chinese government be engaged on human rights abuses in China and in other countries where it has increasing influence (for example, Sudan and Burma)?
There has been a basic consensus from both parties that the U.S. must maintain a long-term policy to engage China, encouraging its transition toward the direction of greater rule of law, human rights and democracy on one hand, and integrating China into international systems and collaboratively addressing common global challenges on the other.

The American people missed an opportunity to hear a complex and nuanced discussion of U.S.-China relations and the importance of a balanced approach.

The former approach includes protecting democratic Taiwan, and maintaining effective pressure on human rights issues, such as information freedom and Tibet, as well as international involvement in Burma and Sudan. The latter requires working together with China in areas of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and developing trust and cooperation in fields such as energy, environment and global warming.

Given the two countries' fundamental differences in political values and systems, and the growing economic interdependence, how to develop cooperation in the bilateral relationship has become a tough balancing act. Here, "balance" has become the key concept.

However, there was no focused discussion about China during the first debate -- neither on human rights or democracy, including regional security of Taiwan strait. Nor was there any talk of how to cooperate on global warming. So the American people missed an opportunity to hear a complex and nuanced discussion of U.S.-China relations and the importance of a balanced approach.

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Jeremy Goldkorn is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of the blog Danwei, covering media, advertising and urban life in China.

I have just watched the debate on YouTube, and I found both of them so boring I don't think I can write much about it.

As a long time resident of China, I would love to see this country's politicians go at it head to head in the way American presidential candidates must. But it is also slightly worrying that many of the complex issues get reduced to simple, populist talking points -- even with people like Obama and McCain who have never previously had reductive black and white views about global problems.

Why does the American presidential race destroy all the color and personality of the candidates?

Why does the American presidential race destroy all the color and personality of the candidates? Obama and McCain are, in theory, two of the most interesting American politicians to emerge for decades. You wouldn't know it from the "Main Street vs. Wall Street" and "greatness of the American people" cliches delivered in this first debate.

share your reactions
REACTIONS


Clayton Dube - Los Angeles, CA
Frontline's attention to global perceptions is vital.I agree entirely with Xiao Qiang and Jeremy Goldkorn about the disappointing silence regarding China. There was much more discussion during the primary campaign. Given the importance and complexity of the US-China relationship for the two countries and the world, it is vital that policy commonalities and differences be clarified. We have tried to do this at the USC U.S.-China Institute. Our video "Election '08 and the Challenge of China" is now available at:
http://china.usc.edu/ShowArticle.aspx?articleID=1191The 40-minute video has eight segments (overview, trade, human rights, Taiwan and military build-up, China's expanding international impact including global warming, the place of China in U.S. campaign politics, McCain on China, and Obama on China).

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thanks for your thoughtful comments and sending us the link to your own institute's China-U.S. relations coverage.


Captain Johann Samuhanand - Bangalore, India
Neither of these leaders is up to the level where one feels they are facing the truth that America is a declining power and China is way ahead in some matters compared to even the rich in America.


Sylvia Aziz - Menlo Park, CA
HERE'S FIVE THINGS THE NEXT US PRESIDENT SHOULD DO:1. CLOSE GUANTANAMO BAY
2. GET OUT OF IRAQ WITHIN 12 MONTHS
3. STOP SAYING IN SPEECHES THAT AMERICA IS THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD. IT NEEDS TO EARN BACK THAT PLACE.
4. MAKE RICHARD HOLBROOK THE NEXT SECRETARY OF STATE
5. PROVIDE SECURITY AT HOME AND FIND A WAY TO GIVE EVERY AMERICAN UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE.


Brian Ricks - Birmingham, Alabama
your Iranian commentator is right that we have to engage Iran at whatever diplomatic level we can to begin thawing that important strategic relationship. We are never going to have credibility in the region when we blindly stand by Israel and cast its neighbors as members of the axis of evil. What does that mean in this day and age anyway? Terrorism, our greatest current threat, isn't a country, it's an ideological belief.Just listening to what these international bloggers have to say shows that we live in complex nuanced times. And the 21st century will be a tough one to broker with no clear superpower to wield the stick any more.


Chris Noonan - Austin, Tx
I think your guest bloggers hit on the main issues. I watched the debate and wondered how soon the next president can get to any of these foreign policy challenges when the economy is in the dire straits it is in. I wonder if the US let alone the American people will have the stomach to solve the rest of the world's problems with so much hardship and damage to undo at home. Maybe this global economic crisis will prove to be the perfect catalyst for soft power and diplomacy. As we have learned to our regret, foolish wars also make expensive mistakes. Thanks for focusing on the real issues and not the soundbite drivel you hear across most of the mainstream airwaves.


Riaz Haq - San Jose, CA
I was asked to participate by Frontline but I couldn't make the short deadline set for it. I do think that, based on all of the policy statements coming out of McCain and Obama campaigns, McCain clearly shows a much better understanding of the complexities and nuances of US-Pakistan relations. I think both of the US presidential candidates and the American people need to see FATA policy as the most important foreign and national security policy challenge facing the new administration. To make good policy that produces desirable results in Afghanistan and Pakistan for America, they need to carefully study and learn all about FATA. Here's my attempt to try and explain it and offer my advice: http://www.riazhaq.com/2008/09/fata-face-off-fears.html


(anonymous)

 

REACTIONS