By Marc Abizeid
Investigative Reporter

As the U.S. occupation of Iraq enters into its sixth painful year and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict continues to flare with no end in sight, some feel that the presumptive Republican and Democratic presidential nominees — senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) — are offering the Middle East little hope for peace.

The presidential race has been surrounded by optimism by those who hope that a new administration will be better prepared to address the situation in Iraq and find an end to the decades-old Arab/Israeli conflict. But despite their hopes, prominent scholars, journalists, and other critics are predicting that the election will bring little change in terms of Middle East policy. 

According to As’ad AbuKhalil, professor of politics at CSU Stanislaus, and author of the popular blog “Angry Arab News Service,” President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies are likely to be carried over to the next administration should McCain or Obama take office.

“The Bush doctrine, on the surface of it, was about the spread of democracy … but I think in reality, the Bush doctrine has been translated into the eruption of civil wars in places as far away as Sudan, Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine, Afghanistan, [and] Iraq,” Abu Khalil said. “[McCain and Obama] are not going to end the empire but they’re going to make, in some ways more dangerous, the empire be more intelligently run and managed than it is now.”

h2. Iraq

A study conducted by Just Foreign Policy estimates that five years of war have led to the deaths of over 1.2 million Iraqis. According to a July 2007 report by Oxfam International, another five million have been displaced inside Iraq or in neighboring countries. The report also reveals that 70 percent of Iraqis do not have access to an adequate water supply and the average Baghdad home receives about two hours of electricity per day.

At home, a majority of Americans are now calling for an end to the war after having sacrificed over 4,000 U.S. soldiers and spent at least half a trillion dollars, by the most conservative estimates.

McCain has been criticized by his Democratic rival for a comment he made in January stating that it would be “fine with [him]” if the U.S. remained in Iraq for 100 years. But Dahr Jamail, an independent journalist who has spent a total of eight months covering the war in Iraq, said that Obama’s “phased withdrawal” plan for U.S. troops in Iraq will not bring an end to the occupation any time soon, either.

“Drawing down the number of soldiers is certainly not a bad thing. But still, it really kind of gets people’s eye off the ball which is total withdrawal, compensating Iraqis, and taking better care of the soldiers once they come home,” Jamail said. “[Neither] of them are talking about a strict timetable and exact numbers, and when there will be a total withdrawal.”

Though shunned from debates and ostracized by the two major parties, Ralph Nader has submitted his fourth bid for presidency with promises to “reverse” U.S. policy in the Middle East. In an interview with City on a Hill Press (CHP), he criticized his rivals’ positions on Iraq and said that either of the other two candidates would be likely to pursue a foreign policy similar to that of President Bush.

“I have a six-month negotiated withdrawal deadline which is the only thing that will give the Iraqis the feeling that our intentions are credible by giving their country back to them and their oil back to them,” Nader said. “Just saying ‘we’re going to draw down the soldiers, we’re going to keep some bases, we’re going to have some special forces,’ like the other candidates say, Iraqis are basically saying, ‘you’re going to be here for the duration, for years, for decades.’”

The McCain and Obama campaigns declined requests for interviews.

James Abourezk, a former Democratic U.S. senator from South Dakota and founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, faulted congressional Democrats for allowing the war to persist by using the excuse that Bush will veto legislation calling for its end. He believes that Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), speaker of the House of Representatives, worries that any move by them to end the war will hamper Obama’s chances of winning the November election.

“If the Democrats wanted to end the war, they control what legislation goes out to the House floor and the Senate floor,” Abourezk said. “And all they have to do is not bring up the funding bill, just [let] it sit. And that’s it. There’s no veto involved, no votes involved, no nothing … It’s really a phony issue saying that Bush would veto everything.”

Abourezk said that Democrats also fear Republican attacks accusing them of “losing Iraq.” McCain, who fought in the Vietnam War before being captured, touts his military record to depict himself as the most qualified candidate to achieve victory in Iraq — an idea ridiculed by Abourezk.

“How can they expect to win? They’d be dreaming. Winning means what, killing everybody in Iraq? Having them all dead, then we can walk away and say we’ve won? There’s no way to win a war like that,” Abourezk said. “… McCain’s strategy is to call it ‘surrender.’ Well, McCain’s the one who surrendered when he crash-landed his airplane in Vietnam. He didn’t die for his country, he surrendered.”

Corporate interests and Washington’s powerful lobby groups are also believed to play a central role in this year’s presidential election. The main candidates, Jamail said, are heavily reliant on support from the pro-Israel lobby as well as weapons manufacturers who favor a continued occupation of Iraq.

According to a Huffington Post study published late last year, McCain had collected $19,200 in donations from weapons manufacturers while Obama had taken in $10,000.

Jamail, citing government-issued documents including the Department of Defense’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review Report and the U.S. National Security Strategy, said the occupation of Iraq will most likely continue well into the next administration in part because of what appears to be a growing threat posed by China.

“By reading these documents, it becomes clear that the U.S. has every intention of maintaining a robust military presence in Iraq and other places around the Middle East and to continue projecting that power into that region,” Jamail said. “When you look at where the U.S. bases are laid out around the globe, they’re basically slowly but surely encircling China and China’s energy reserves that lay outside of their own country.”

h2. Palestine/Israel

Last month, Israelis celebrated the 60th anniversary of their country’s founding, which they hoped would serve as a refuge for Jewish settlers escaping persecution. But many Palestinians mourn that time as the Nakba, meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, which has come to represent the period in 1948 when at least 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee their towns and villages.

Since that time, the region has been consumed with violence as Israel’s claims to Arab lands have led to wars that have defined the Arab/Israeli conflict. The main candidates say they support a peace initiative to create a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians, but some critics are expressing skepticism that this will be done.

Life has been especially difficult for Palestinians living in Gaza during the last year, ever since Israel’s decision to isolate the tiny strip of land. Israel’s siege came shortly after Hamas — an Islamist movement and enemy of Israel originally founded with Israeli support to battle secular resistance groups — took over Gaza in June 2007. The move by Hamas came more than one year after the group won a landslide victory in a 2006 parliamentary election but was denied power by the ruling Western-backed Fatah party.

A U.K.-based coalition of human rights organizations, which includes Amnesty International, Christian Aid and others, published a study in March revealing the humanitarian crisis in Gaza to be at its worst level in 40 years. The Israeli siege on Gaza — which Israel says is necessary to discourage Palestinians from firing rockets into Israel — has led to severe shortages of food, fuel, medicine, electricity, and other necessities.

McCain and Obama have expressed unfledged support for the siege, mimicking Israel’s claims of necessity, while Nader heavily criticizes Israel’s policies in the occupied territories and calls Gaza “the world’s largest prison.”

“[Gaza has] a million and a half people. They can’t go in and out. They can’t trade, and the U.N. can’t even get its aid in to the starving or malnourished kids and other people,” Nader said. “[Israel] talks about the crude rockets that the Gazans are sending over to Israel and 99 percent of them fall with a big thud either in Gaza or on a desert on the other side. How many missiles, how many gun ships have the Israelis shot into crowded areas, into refugee areas? And by the way, who’s the occupier?”

Obama was a well-known supporter of Palestinian rights during his tenure as an Illinois state senator and was spotted mingling at events in Chicago with his friends Rashid Khalidi and the late Edward Sa’id, both prominent professors at Columbia University and harsh critics of Israel. Currently, he is in favor of a two-state solution. 

“I have met many Arabs who support [Obama] on the assumption that because he was good on Palestine 15 years ago, that once he goes to the White House, he’s going to make things good,” AbuKhalil said. “I think once you’re in the White House you realize that the guiding principles of U.S. foreign policy are so well entrenched in unconditional support for Israeli aggression that even if it’s Obama, or whoever else, it’s gonna stick the same.”

Obama’s switch on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, like many others who spoke with sympathy for the Palestinians before aspiring to hold national office, is generally attributed to the massive influence of dominant pro-Israel lobby groups in Washington.

“Basically, he’s a coward,” Nader said of Obama. “About a year ago he said the Palestinians are among the most suffering people in the world. The Israeli lobby pounced on him and said ‘You better shut your mouth,’ and he shut his mouth. That does not augur well for his pretense that there’s going to be change if he’s elected president.”

Abourezk, who served as a South Dakota congressman from 1971 to 1973, then as a U.S. Senator from 1973 to 1979, said that pro-Israel lobby groups like (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) AIPAC have come to dominate policies in Washington on matters concerning the Middle East. According to him, Congress often makes decisions against the U.S.’s own interests at the behest of the lobby.

“You should hear the senators in the cloakroom talking, criticizing the Israeli lobby saying ‘Jesus God, they walked us into this deal we shouldn’t have,’ and they go on and on and on,” he said. “Then they get out on the Senate floor and start making speeches praising Israel. It’s something to watch.”

AIPAC, which held its annual three-day conference earlier this week that featured appearances by McCain and Obama, declined a request to interview. However, spokesman Josh Block offered the two candidates praise in an e-mail to CHP.

“[McCain and Obama] have strong congressional voting records on issues of importance to the pro-Israel community,” Block wrote. “And [both] have demonstrated records of support for the special relationship between the United States and Israel based on shared values and common interests.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, recently established a new liberal pro-Israel political action committee and advocacy group called J-Street. According to him, J-Street is necessary in order to open debate in Washington that he says has been “locked down” by three main forces: neo-conservatives, the right-wing Christian Zionist movement, and the already established right-wing pro-Israel lobby.

“I think that when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the Israeli/Arab conflict, I really haven’t heard much that distinguishes the views of [McCain and Obama,]” Ben-Ami said. “[Neither] of them have really taken a tremendously off-the-usual page stance on these issues and frankly, given the current state of politics in Washington, I wouldn’t expect them to.”

Ben-Ami, Abourezk and others insist that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington does not represent mainstream Israeli opinion, but that American politicians vying for national office will have little choice but to go along with the lobby so long as they continue to dominate discourse.

“Most people in Israel are for a [Palestinian] settlement. They want to get the conflict settled as soon as they can because they don’t like what they see is happening,” Abourezk said. “But the hardliners in this country are going to keep it going. Somebody at some point has got to stand up and say ‘Hey, this is against our interest.’”