Barak Obama and John McCain are trapped by recent events to express themselves on Iraq and Afghanistan.
We should not expect complete honesty from candidates. Humility can add to their stature among those who will read history years later. It may not help with the voters in November.
An unpleasant Israeli episode is relevant.
For several years leading up to the 1982 war, security and political figures developed what they thought were close working relations with counterparts among the Lebanese Christians. The background was Palestinian attacks against Israel from Lebanon, and the aggressiveness of armed Palestinians in the weak fabric of Lebanon.
Ariel Sharon was Defense Minister, with a long background in the military. When the invasion of Lebanon came in response to a Palestinian attack on the Israeli ambassador in London, Sharon thought he had a deal for Israeli and Christian cooperation against their mutual enemy.
The Christians sat on their hands until the Israelis were occupying Beirut. Then they sent their fighters into the Palestinian neighborhoods of Sabra and Shatilla, and massacred old men, women and children. This was not to help the Israelis, but to take revenge in the style of Lebanon for the killing of Bashir Gemayel, the Christian president-elect of Lebanon.
Largely as a result of this, 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the government; Sharon lost his position as Defense Minister; and the Israeli military began a withdrawal after achieving only part of its mission.
What is the point?
Israeli figures with substantial backgrounds found themselves suckered by people they thought they knew well.
My own sense of being close to Lebanon comes from the day I was called to a brief stint of reserve duty. I ate an early breakfast in Jerusalem, drove to the border, crossed over in a military vehicle, did my job, had lunch, returned to the border and reached home in time for a late dinner.
Can we hope that Obama, McCain, and their many advisers will do better on the other side of the world than Israelis who thought they had the cooperation of neighbors?
I am pretty sure that Americans and Canadians understand one another. Also Americans and Western Europeans. Often they disagree about their national interests, but they are likely to understand one another.
Americans and Mexicans? Less so.
Americans, Iraqis and Afghans?
If I had a scheme for American action in Iraq or Afghanistan, it would come here.
What I read is the arrogance of people who call themselves experts.
A New York Times article about Obama's visit to Afghanistan noted that he met with a provincial governor with a "brutal past . . . (who) nevertheless (is) favored by the United States as someone who can get things done." http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/us/politics/20cnd-obama.html?pagewanted=2&sq=obama%20afghanistan&st=cse&scp=3
This figure may deserve the praise of Americans "for his tough action against poppy cultivation and official corruption," or he may have hoodwinked the foreigners. It is not easy to acquire the power of a war lord and regional leader without being involved in the principal national ventures of poppy growing and smuggling. The International Monetary Fund estimates that opium amounts to one-third of the national economy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Afghanistan Production reached record levels in 2007-08 despite programs of aid and eradication. http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2008/cr08229.pdf
Obama is selling norms of openness and morality as part of his campaign in the United States. They have limited relevance for his aspiration of making policy about Afghanistan.
Part of the Israel lesson in Lebanon were the problems in learning the social map. Groups of Christians, Muslims, and Druze could be allies one day and fighting the next. Family is more important than political slogans, religion, or agreements. It is important to know who is related to who, and the history of bloody feuds that can return in a moment to end what seems to be an alliance.
Iraq and Afghanistan are also tribal societies, where national development is not what is described for Europe and North America in the textbooks of political science.
Neither of the American candidates can undo the most recent seven years. 9-11 really happened, along with the invasions and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Victory is not likely in either of those countries. A presidential campaign is made for heroic promises rather than honest concessions about the limits of power.
Those of us who remember Vietnam know that a country that aspires to world leadership can leave a situation it helped to create, and overlook whatever occurs. The Americans hurt the Taliban badly, but did not defeat them. If they return to power, it will not be pretty. And without the Americans in Iraq, the Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites are unlikely to live alongside one another peacefully.
Israeli leaders have become more modest in their plans for what should be done with respect to neighbors and enemies. There was no prolonged occupation of Lebanon in 2006, and there is great reluctance to invade Gaza. There is no occupation of the West Bank, but small unit incursions and departures.
The threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of Iranians who have spoken about Israel's destruction may produce something more dramatic. Those who relish dismal realism should read a scenario by an Israeli academic that includes escalation to the use of nuclear weapons. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/18/opinion/18morris.html?sq=Benny%20Morris&st=cse&scp=2&pagewanted=all
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Home tel: 972-2-532-2725
Cell phone: 054-683-5325