A friend asked me what I thought of the recent exchange between John McCain and Barack Obama on Al Qaeda and Iraq. For those of you, my imaginary readers, who have not heard about this, here is the Readers' Digest version:
Republican presidential hopeful John McCain mocked Democrat Barack Obama on Wednesday for saying he would take action as president "if al-Qaida is forming a base in Iraq."
"I have some news. Al-Qaida is in Iraq. It's called `al-Qaida in Iraq,'" McCain said, drawing laughter at Obama's expense.
So, what do I think? Well, I think they're talking past each other.
The key to the exchange between Obama and McCain is to recognize that there is a dispute about the relationship between Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). At one extreme, AQI might not be a distinct organization at all, so that the term refers simply to those members of the Al Qaeda organization who are living in Iraq at the moment. (McCain's sarcastic comments fit here.) At the other extreme, AQI might be entirely separate from Al Qaeda, sharing nothing but the name. And of course there are lots of possibilities in the middle.
Similarly, there is a debate about what Al Qaeda itself is. Some people think of it like a government or an army, organized and hierarchical. Some people think of it as a loose network of affiliated groups. Some argue that it is a social movement, or an ideology, or even a fiction. And this disagreement colors the debate, too.
To me, it seems like Obama and McCain were talking past each other-- not even speaking the same language. Obama said he would consider sending troops into Iraq "if al Qaeda [were] forming a base" there. When he says Al Qaeda, he probably isn't meaning to refer to the whole network, but just its core, centered around Osama bin Laden himself. And more than that, when he talks about them forming a base, he is probably thinking about the kind of physical infrastructure that Al Qaeda had set up in Taliban-era Afghanistan, where they were able to operate in the open. Such bases are easily identifiable targets-- you know when you blow one up. So it's easy to think about intervening to remove them.
On the other hand, McCain says that Al Qaeda already has bases in Iraq. He doesn't mean that Osama bin Laden is there, but that the Al Qaeda in Iraq organization is there. And when he says they are there, he doesn't mean that they have physical facilities like the big military-style compounds they had in Afghanistan. The Iraqi government, though, does not like AQI, so they have to operate in secret. So, no big bases.
For McCain, that's reason enough to be involved. But for Obama, it's not. The group is not close enough to bin Laden and the core of the Al Qaeda network. Their presence in Iraq is not obtrusive enough for us to worry about. And I would guess that he also doesn't fear an attack on American soil coming from AQI, as he might from Al Qaeda.
Of course I am guessing here, because Obama's actual response did not shed any light on this. He just got defensive and changed the subject:
"So I have some news for John McCain," he added, saying there was no al-Qaida presence in Iraq until President Bush invaded the country.
Noting that McCain likes to tell audiences that he'd follow Osama bin Laden to the "gates of hell" to catch him, Obama taunted: "All he (McCain) has done is to follow George Bush into a misguided war in Iraq."
Obama could have pointed out that he and McCain do not agree on what Al Qaeda is, or how it is related to Al Qaeda in Iraq, or what constitutes a base. McCain could have done the same. And this would have clarified their positions a lot. But keeping things ambiguous is better when you're on the campaign trail because it maximizes the number of voters who think your position is close to their own. So I'm not surprised that we get a muddy argument carried out in the form of mostly vapid sound bites. It's safer than being clear.
Or, maybe they're just not as smart as me, so they didn't see this.
Yes! Yes! Mind taker!