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Obama and Romney: Agreed on the Middle East

Amidst a looming budget crisis and international criticism, the Democratic and Republican nominees both remain committed to a costly program of foreign occupations and war.

When it comes to America’s military actions abroad, the issues not discussed by either candidate may be the most important.

Iraq – withdrawal, of sorts

Obama opposed the Iraq War as a state legislator and argued for troop withdrawal in his original campaign, while Romney supported the invasion.

In the third debate he condemned Romney for wanting a continuing troop presence in the country.

“Just a few weeks ago, you said you think we should have more troops in Iraq right now… You said that we should still have troops in Iraq to this day,” he said.

Romney responded by pointing out that Obama had himself attempted to negotiate a Status of Forces agreement with Iraq’s government that would maintain 3000-5000 troops in Iraq.

Negotiations collapsed after Iraq refused to provide US soldiers immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, and only after this did the spin doctors get to work on Obama’s “promise kept”.

Romney described this as a blow to America’s influence in the region.

“America’s ability to influence events for the better in Iraq has been undermined by the abrupt withdrawal of our entire troop presence,” he said.

However, both candidates are neglecting to mention a few things about America’s ‘total withdrawal’.

Privatisation of occupation

A small number of troops will remain in the country, with the Office of Security Cooperation directing the activities of more than 100 military personnel tasked with training Iraq’s army and helping to oversee continuing multi-billion dollar arms sales to the Iraqi military.

The US embassy in Baghdad is the largest and most expensive in the world, with 17,000 staff all operating under legal immunity.

There are also consulates in Basra, Mosul and Kirkuk, each with upwards of 1000 employees.

These figures include more than just the bureaucrats and diplomats that immediately spring to mind – the embassy also houses CIA officers, intelligence analysts, defence attaches and upwards of 5,000 security contractors.

In place of uniformed soldiers, America’s activities in Iraq are increasingly carried out by thousands of defence contractors – essentially mercenaries operating under the aegis of the US government.

They do everything from peeling potatoes to providing diplomats and businessmen with armed security details.

Exact figures and details of precise activities are hard to come by, but the latest report from US Central Command details 7,336 contractors working for the Pentagon in Iraq.

It’s not just the Pentagon outsourcing its boots on the ground – when other government agencies (such as the US State Department) are factored in the numbers become closer to 13,500.

While Obama and Romney cross verbal swords over the withdrawal of troops and how it took place, the privatisation of America’s significant and ongoing presence in Iraq does not rate a mention.

Afghanistan – America’s longest war

There are very few differences between Obama and Romney over the war in Afghanistan.

US forces have now been at war in Afghanistan for more than 11 years, making it the longest war in American history.

The financial costs sit at nearly $1.2 trillion, over 2,000 US soldiers are dead and an uncertain number of civilians (estimated to be in the tens of thousands) have also been killed.

President Obama reiterated in May his 2011 commitment to withdraw troops by the end of 2014, a strategy Romney disagreed with at the time.

Since then Romney has modified his position and during the third presidential debates expressed his support for the withdrawal date.

In fact, he went so far as to implicitly praise Obama’s handling of the conflict.

“We’ve seen progress over the past several years,” he said.

“The surge has been successful, and the training program is proceeding at pace.”

The President took a similarly optimistic view.

“We’re now in a position where we can transition out, because there’s no reason why Americans should die when Afghans are perfectly capable of defending their own country.”

Collapse of trust on the ground

Many reports indicate that these optimistic projections are not entirely in accordance with reality on the ground.

Romney may have high hopes for the training program, but the past year has seen an unprecedented wave of ‘green-on-blue attacks’ as Afghani security personnel turn their guns on the Coalition soldiers training them.

Green-on-blue attacks caused 16% of all Coalition casualties this year, a steep rise from 6% in 2011.

This has resulted in a collapse of trust on the ground, and joint patrols between Afghan and international forces have been largely suspended.

Some soldiers are so concerned about their supposed local allies that they insist on being armed at all times, even when sleeping.

The International Committee of the Red Cross released a report this month claiming the war is getting worse for civilians, whose casualties have steadily increased since 2007, and the Karzai government is predicted to collapse if and when foreign forces withdraw.

As with Iraq, these matters did not surface during the debates, and as with Iraq there are unanswered questions over when and to what extent withdrawal will actually take place.

Ongoing presence promised

The US government is currently negotiating a Bilateral Security Agreement that will set the terms for an ongoing military presence until 2024.

The commitment to this date was made in a Strategic Partnership Agreement the Obama administration signed earlier this year.

US government officials insist that there is no agreed upon figure for how many troops will remain in Afghanistan, but military planners have said as many as 25,000 may be needed.

With the Taliban resurgent amidst an escalating humanitarian crisis, the commitment of both candidates to withdraw US forces may not be beyond question.

Iran – next in line

The threat of war over Iran’s nuclear ambitions has been a major talking point in the election campaign, and the two candidates again have few if any differences on the subject.

Romney has tried to present himself as a strong alternative to what he presents as Obama’s more conciliatory approach.

“This president has communicated in some respects that he might even be more worried about Israel taking direct military action than he is about Iran becoming nuclear,” he said.

“I can assure you if I’m president, the Iranians will have no question but that I would be willing to take military action, if necessary, to prevent them from becoming a nuclear threat to the world.”

Obama used the final debate to dismiss Romney’s criticisms, pointing to tough economic sanctions that have caused the value of Iran’s currency to collapse.

“The disagreement I have with Governor Romney is that, during the course of this campaign, he’s often talked as if we should take premature military action,” he said.

Both candidates pledged to stand with Israel in any regional conflict, a commitment the President said Iran should take as a warning.

“They can take the diplomatic route and end their nuclear program or they will have to face a united world and a United States president, me, who said we’re not going to take any options off the table.”

For all the heat it has generated, the Iran issue seems more of a unifying pole in American politics than a source of genuine friction.

Warfare droning on

Polls conducted outside of the US consistently show support for an Obama victory.

One country that bucks the trend is Pakistan, where a PEW survey in June revealed 7% support for Obama – lower than Bush during his final year in office.

A BBC World Service poll showed Pakistanis would prefer Romney to win by a small margin, although both candidates received less than 20%.

It seems far from coincidental that no other country polled by the BBC had been targeted by America’s covert drone strikes.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that over the past decade the United States has launched 350 drone strikes in Pakistan, with 298 of these taking place after Obama came into office.

These attacks have killed up to 3,378 people, including up to 885 civilians and 176 children.

The Bureau also tracks data of covert bombing in Somalia and Yemen, where up to 1,055 have been killed, including 163 civilians, up to 34 children, and two American citizens.

There is huge opposition to aerial assassination among the Pakistani public, with a PEW poll from June this year recording only 17% support for the bombing campaign – and that 74% of those polled now see America as an enemy.

In fact, America is the only country in the world where a majority of the population declare support for the drone strikes.

In this context it is perhaps unsurprising that on this issue Romney and Obama once again find themselves in complete agreement.

There has been little mention of drone warfare from either candidate in the lead up to polling day, but the issue did come up briefly during the final presidential debate.

Moderator Bob Schieffer specifically asked Romney for his thoughts on the program, as the President’s views were ‘already known’.

Romney expressed complete approval for Obama’s drone policies.

“It’s widely reported that drones are being used in drone strikes, and I support that and entirely, and feel the president was right to up the usage of that technology, and believe that we should continue to use it.”

When Obama’s chance to respond came he avoided any mention of the bombings.

Arms spending staying the course

Both candidates talk about deficit reduction, yet both also agree on the need for increased military spending in the coming years.

There are real differences between the candidates on a variety of issues.

When it comes to the ongoing wars in the Middle East, however, there are few disagreements in sight.

Alastair Reith is a journalist in New Zealand.

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