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Begun, the Drone Wars have: Turkey, Libya, Syria, the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, and how drones are changing warfare

When you were voting, I studied the drone. When you were having coronavirus, I mastered electronic warfare. While you wasted your days at the firing range in pursuit of vanity, I cultivated force projection. And now that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gate you have the audacity to come to me for help.
--Anonymous Redditor, 2016 [translated by AmericanNewt8 into 2020ese]

A new kind of warfare has taken the world by storm this year. While most of us were preoccupied with the election, the coronavirus, and the other exciting events that have taken place over this year when decades happen, a small number of people have kept a close watch on distant battlegrounds in the Middle East; where the face of war has changed since January in ways that few would have predicted--and with it the region as a whole.

1. In the Beginning

But let's go back a ways; to the ancient world of circa 1980. Drones were not a new technology in any sense of the word--but they weren't particularly of interest beyond hobbyists, target drones, and occasional odd military projects like the D-21 reconnaissance drone. However, things were changing with the introduction of digital cameras and increasingly capable processors and transmitters as computers rapidly developed--and so it was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of that. That someone was the Israelis. Israel has a high level of technical expertise, large defense needs, but a relatively small industrial base, so it often pioneers technologies of this sort, and so it did with the Tadiran Mastiff.

This innovation quickly proved to be of significant utility in the First Lebanon War. Besides spotting Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, they played a crucial role in the still-infamous "Bekaa Valley turkey shoot" in which Israeli aircraft supported by UAVs destroyed a massive quantity of top-of-the-line Soviet hardware--almost 90 Syrian aircraft and 29 surface-to-air missile batteries at the total loss of minor damage to a pair of F-15s and one UAV shot down. Electronic warfare and AWACs control also proved crucial in this conflict, which in many ways paved the way for the successes of Desert Storm and the 2003 Iraq invasion; and reportedly shattered the self-confidence of the Soviet Union in its air defenses.

Since that first incident; UAVs have become an increasingly prominent part of the arsenal, particularly of the United States; though Israel and China also manufacture numerous UAVs and theirs are more popular in the export market due to lower prices and fewer scruples about "human rights" or "political stability". UAVs have become key reconnaissance assets and popular for precision-strike counter-insurgency missions. However, neither the United States nor China can claim credit for the latest developments--and Israel, at best, has played a peripheral role. The nation that everyone is watching now is Turkey.

2. Turkey

For most of history, Turkey; or at least the geographical area of Anatolia, was a great power of some shape or another. The modern Turkey, however, rejected the idea of empire and foreign adventurism under Ataturk; the father of the Republic. While it has generally tended towards the West--directed in that way both softly by the allure of Europe and drive for modernization; and with great force by the military, which has tended to depose any government that even hinted at reintroducing religious or Middle Eastern aspects back into the aggressively secular Republic, Turkey has not been a particularly major player in the past century. Despite joining NATO for protection against the Soviet Union--which despised Turkey's chokehold on the Bosporous--it never had much appetite for interventionism.

In the era of the "Great Convergence", where nations seem to be returning to historical norms of influence and power, it should be no real surprise then that Turkey has become more assertive. It has grown much wealthier thanks to its association with Europe; and that wealth is actually created by the Turks, not dug up out of the ground like it is in much of the Middle East. It is more educated; more progressive [this of course being a rather relative term] and, importantly, much better at fighting, than most of its neighbors.

Turkey has been working to build a domestic armaments industry with great success--barring a handful of key items like jet engines which hardly anyone can manufacture well, Turkey can do most things. In between indigenous development and picking up knowledge from South Korea, China, Ukraine, and so on, Turkey has one of the world's better arms industries--I'd say it's about reached the level that South Korea was at ten or twenty years ago, which is pretty good. Its drone program, however, started because of a different problem.

The Turks wanted drones back in the early 2000s for what we in the business call "reasons". Evidently the United States saw through this; because, despite allowing Turkey to license-assemble F-16s and build parts for the F-35, it did not sell Turkey drones for fear that they would be used against the Kurds[a perception that proved to be correct as Turkey has indeed used its UAVs against Kurdish insurgents]. As a result, Turkey decided to do it themselves, and started building up their own drone program from scratch. By the beginning of 2020, Turkey had a large drone program and advanced electronic-warfare equipment. But nobody was really paying attention to their drone program; it was a sideshow of limited interest compared to the big players, that would presumably be of some utility but not a game-changer. I mean, their premiere drone literally used an engine made for homebuilt aircraft and was the size and weight of a smart car. Nothing too impressive. That is, until January.

3. Libya

The Libyan conflict is a deeply convoluted one that is difficult to explain. In essence; Libya has been in some sort of civil war since Gaddafi was deposed in 2011, but the most recent division is between the GNA, or Government of National Accord--the UN-recognized government of Libya located in Tripoli--and the "Tobruk Government" which acts as a rubber-stamp body for Gaddafi wannabe General Haftar. Haftar started off this year with things looking pretty good. After breaking the second cease-fire agreement in as many years, flush with cash and support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France, Haftar was on the move, pushing for Tripoli itself. It was going to take a while, but nothing could stop Haftar from defeating the ragtag GNA militias.

Nothing, that is, until Turkey unexpectedly showed up because of a completely different dispute over rights to the seas around Cyprus. Libya [the GNA to be precise] was willing to delineate its boundary with Turkey in a way which cut off Greek and Cypriot claims, and, in return, Turkey arrived after a highly contentious vote in the normally placid Turkish Grand National Assembly, with Syrian mercenaries in tow; but also a large number of drones--mostly the Bayraktar TB2-- and KORAL land-based standoff jammers.

What happened next was a deep humiliation for Russia in particular. Russia and the UAE had supplied General Haftar with a number of its premiere short-range air defense system, the much-vaunted Pantsir which was designed to shoot down UAVs, cruise missiles, and other small munitions. Unfortunately, the Pantsir proved much worse at shooting down Turkish drones than serving as target practice for them. Estimates suggest 23 systems were destroyed [Turkey even captured one system and presumably picked it apart for intelligence] while perhaps ~16 Bayraktar TB2 drones were destroyed--which doesn't sound terrible until one remembers that those drones caused significantly more destruction than the air-defense systems and come in at a third of the price; and becomes even less favorable when one realizes that as the conflict went on the ratio flipped increasingly in favor of the Turks. Ultimately, the Turks achieved their goal, with Haftar being pushed back to Sirte and another cease-fire agreement being signed. This conflict, however, has contributed significantly to the increasing rift between France and Turkey, and their respective relations with Russia.

4. Syria

Russia likes to test its luck--to see what exactly it can get away with. Invading Crimea, shooting down a civilian airliner, attempting to murder exiles with Novichok. Often, it does get away with it. But when nations actually push back, they often find great weakness--for instance, the infamous incident where Americans killed 200 Russian "mercenaries" in Syria after Russia denied they were Russian soldiers, or when American cyberwarriors shut down Russian trolls during the 2018 election. Nowhere is this more illustrated than in Syria, where, early this year, a "Syrian" airstrike killed 29 Turkish soldiers even though Russian involvement was an open secret.

What followed was not the usual vague condemnation and angry letter-writing that one might have expected. Instead, Turkey responded with a substantial escalation of force, again largely done by drones. Ultimately, around 200 Syrian government soldiers were killed in this short offensive--along with 45 tanks, 33 artillery pieces, 33 transport/utility vehicles, 20 armored vehicles, a pair of Su-24 aircraft that attacked a Turkish drone, and several SAM systems, which again proved largely ineffective against Turkish drones. While the conflict stopped before it went any further, the lesson was clear: Turkey was willing to escalate beyond where Russia was willing or able to respond, and there wasn't anything they could do about it.

Besides having a nice moral--extremely hard pushback is the best way to respond to Russian provocation, because they aren't expecting it and can't fight back since they lack effective escalation methods--this conflict proved again that Turkish drones were highly effective even against a state actor [albeit a weak one, like Syria]. The world watched--but nowhere else as closely as Azerbaijan.

5. Artsakh

Artsakh is; or perhaps more aptly was, an Armenian state--not recognized by any other state--within the borders of the former Azerbaijan SSR. It emerged out of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, one of the nastier conflicts resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. In short; the Soviet Union put an ethnically Armenian area in the Azerbaijan SSR that was semi-autonomous; called Nagorno-Karabakh, that Armenians viewed as rightfully part of Armenia. When the Soviet Union broke apart--even before it had done so completely--Armenia and Azerbaijan were already engaging in low-level fighting; and in scenes reminiscent of the Partition of 1949, Azeris living in Armenia fled the country--as did their Armenian counterparts in Azerbaijan.

Then, as the Soviet Union properly collapsed, both sides geared up for war. The Soviet Union had left quite a lot of stuff lying around as it collapsed; and Azerbaijan ended up with the bulk of it due to the disposition of Soviet forces. Both sides bought black-market weapons and armaments from conscript soldiers in the confusion of the the collapse. And then they went to war.

The result was a years-long, brutal conflict that killed tens of thousands of people--in two relatively small countries--and, despite Azerbaijan having more equipment, more men, and more foreign support--from Turkey, which never had much love for Armenia and was building ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia [of whom the Azeris are one], and from Israel, who saw a potential new partner in a dangerous region. Armenia had some support from Russia, largely due to connections through a shared religion, nervousness about the Turks, and feelings among the Russian elite that were more sympathetic to Armenia.

However, against all odds, the Armenians emerged victorious. In 1994, with the Armenians poised to break out of the mountains and attack the heart of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan exhausted from years of war, a cease-fire was signed.

From that day onwards; both nations began preparing for the return of conflict. It was only a matter of time. Armenia had not only taken Nagorno-Karabakh, they had taken large portions of ethnically Azeri land as well, including sites that were of paramount cultural and historical importance to the Azeris. They also engaged in ethnic cleansing, and to this day Azerbaijan, at least nominally, has hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict.

In the intervening years, however, things changed. In particular; Turkey rose to a newfound regional prominence, and Azerbaijan, though being careful to always maintain a measure of proximity to Russia sufficient to not cause its rulers concern, slowly drifted towards Turkey and Israel. Ties with Turkey stretched to a mutual defense agreement. Ties to Israel included offering potential basing in Azerbaijan, the sale of oil [not many nations would sell Israel oil until recently] along with shadowy intelligence connections--Mossad operations in Iran are believed to be launched out of Azerbaijan [for a number of reasons, Iran and Azerbaijan don't like each other very much]. And Azerbaijan, noted for its oil reserves as far back as the Second World War; collected large revenues which it sunk into military spending. Meanwhile, Armenia, despite making large purchases from Russia, fell behind in military readiness, and in its economy--not helped by the fact that, because of a mix of pro-Azeri Turkish policy and Armenian distrust and even hatred of Turkey [thanks to the fact that Turkey argues over whether even discussing "those unfortunate events of 1915" is okay], the Turkish border remains closed--meaning that trade can only go via Iran or Georgia.

Meanwhile, the peace process dithered on, with occasional small skirmishes breaking out. The regular theme was that Armenia would hand over the Azeri-majority [now unoccupied] territory it captured, and Nagorno-Karabakh would, in return, be recognized, or become autonomous, or something of the sort. The Minsk Group led these efforts; though not particularly well--all three members had significant biases. The Russians were pro-Armenian though not anti-Azeri [mostly, they were in favor of the status quo, which favored them], the French were pro-Armenian [on account of disliking Turkey and having a politically influential Armenian population much like the Cubans in Miami], and the Americans were sufficiently pro-Azeri that they created manuals like this and defending the fictional nation of Atropia [which just happens to be an oil-rich, pro-Western autocracy that is exactly where Azerbaijan is] against foreign invaders became a meme among the US military--you can buy "Atropia Veteran" swag, and it became so transparent that Europeans complained about "defending autocrats" in the exercise and Turkish officials complained that "Limaria" [Armenia] included areas that should have been in "Kemalia" [Turkey].

Ultimately, by 2020, a few things had changed. After victory in clashes in 2016, and purchases of new arms, Azerbaijan was confident that it wouldn't fail due to military incompetence like last time. Armenia had elected a new leader, more distant from Russia [especially since he came to power in a 'color revolution'], complicating any Russian response. Not only that, but Armenia had begun settling in territory that was formerly ethnically Azeri, and had attempted to rewrite history so the land they had taken was somehow always Armenian, making a land swap less tenable--especially after the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was renamed to the Republic of Artsakh. Domestic protests about a lack of action on the issue further spurred action, but perhaps the most decisive factor was Turkey's drone-fueled rampage and Russia's no good, very bad year elsewhere [from the domestic economy to the chaos in Belarus].

So at the end of September 2020, they went to war.

6. Curb-stomp battle

Course of the conflict by Liveuamap

Initially, the war looked like it was serious, but not out of line with previous escalations. Azeri and Armenian forces clashed along the border--but then Azerbaijan made a major incursion along the southern border, which is flat and nearly completely unpopulated, and through the rest of the war pushed through there until they ultimately cut the single road leading to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia when they recaptured Shusha. At that point, Armenia capitulated.

While the exact details of why this happened are of relatively little importance, what does matter is what drones did. Armenian air defenses proved completely defenseless against the onslaught of Azerbaijan, with even larger and heavier systems like Russia's S-300 being destroyed by Turkish-manufactured drones. Even the An-2, a literal Soviet 1940s cropdusting biplane, proved lethal to air defenses when rigged with the right equipment.

As a result, Azerbaijan swept across Armenian forces with drones, targeting anything larger than a bicycle, destroying tanks, artillery pieces, and surface-to-air-missile systems alike. While initially Azerbaijan didn't advance, they pursued a strategy of attrition against Armenian forces--and were quite successful at it. Nowhere was safe for Armenian infantry--even miles behind the front, drones were still a risk. After a few weeks of this, Azerbaijan began their offensive. This was interrupted by several ceasefires, the most successful of which lasted around fifteen minutes.

In the meantime, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in tactics reminiscent of the War of the Cities. Armenians made rocket attacks on Azeri civilian targets, and even ballistic missile strikes with SCUDs and Tokchas against Ganja, an Azeri metropolis, with later attacks also taking place against Barda and other targets. Virtually all sources agree that Armenia conducted a deliberate policy of targeting civilians in retaliation from the advance of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan, meanwhile, adopted what I would characterize as a callous indifference to Armenian civilian lives. We have relatively little documentation on exactly what they did, but it is likely that major war crimes were committed against Armenian prisoners. However, we do know that rockets and cluster munitions were used against civilian areas of Stepanakert. By and large, though, Azerbaijan's government is mindful of global sensitivities and would rather avoid making itself a bigger villain than it has to be.

7. Ending

By the first week of November, despite appearances, it had become clear Armenia was losing. While they still held most of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri forces were rapidly closing in on the major road [1 of 2] that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper. Armenian forces were demoralized and lacked heavy equipment. Civilians fled; with most of the population of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, fleeing before the road was cut. Analysts had few doubts that, within another few weeks, before winter arrived, Azerbaijan could take all of Nagorno-Karabakh.

But fortunately, several factors coincided. First, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan realized the situation Armenia was in, and presumably began talking about peace. President [and resident dynastic autocrat] of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev had achieved most of the territorial gains he wanted, but as far as I can tell had little to no interest in making his country notorious for what would surely be the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of people. Russia was interested in making sure that any deal possible happened that could salvage its privileged position in the region. And since Azerbaijan had acheived its major goals, Turkey was alright with suing for peace as well.

The final impetus was provided by the Azeris taking Shusha, the second-largest city in the region [and one of tremendous cultural importance to the Azeri people], and, at around the same time, the Azeris accidentally shooting down a Russian attack helicopter on the border.

The ultimate deal was incredibly favorable to the Azeris, which should be expected given that they could have taken the rest of the region with relative ease. It involved Armenia vacating most of Nagorno-Karabakh and all the ethnically Azeri land they had taken, bar the Lachin Corridor. Of particular importance to Turkey, and to the Azeri economy, was that the deal created a corridor through Armenia to Azerbaijan's western exclave, and hence to Turkey, for transit. While still an indirect route, it is nowhere near as difficult as traveling around through Georgia. Russia also got to pretend like it still mattered by deploying a few thousand peacekeepers for what seems likely to be a limited time.

Azerbaijan celebrated. As far as anyone was concerned, they had won. Turkey also celebrated--they had, in their view, not only supported the Turkic Azeris in a victory against the Armenians, but also won a battle against Russia to see whom was the real dominant power in the Caucasus. Russia didn't celebrate, but felt that it had at least maintained some sort of influence in the region when initially things looked like they might ultimately sideline Russia entirely. Armenia, however, unsurprisingly, was enraged, and rioters smashed government buildings and forced Prime Minister Pashinyan into hiding; however, it looks like the Armenians realize that they really had no chance of winning and aren't going to resume the conflict.

8. What Now?

In a strange twist of fate, there is some speculation that peace is now more likely than it was before the war. In particular, some think that Turkey will be interested in finally coming to terms with the Armenians and opening its border with Armenia--which would significantly reduce Russian influence in the region and promote economic development--and some speculate that Azerbaijan may now be willing to make a lasting peace deal since it has, essentially, all that it wants.

This war chronicles one of this year's themes--the decline of Russia, and rise of Turkey. I would expect to see more conflict between them in the future, and I'd expect to see, in a strange historical irony, Turkey coming out on top. Russia has not had a very good year at all and I think this conflict is really just the latest example of how far it has fallen in its military capabilities and political influence despite what Putin shows off.

Small drones are now the obsession of every military planner, as is trying to figure out a way to shoot them down reliably. Already a number of nations have expressed interest in buying the Turkish drones that had such a decisive impact on these conflicts. It seems likely that this will especially transform lower-end conflicts where foreign powers can now intervene without risking more than a few million dollars in equipment, and where local powers can now field their own drones and precision-guided munitions while being, for the moment, largely unopposed.

Whatever the ultimate impact, though, it is undeniable that this change in warfare has been one of the more important and interesting bits of 2020 thus far, though it's behind some truly massive things. Unlike the coronavirus, or Donald Trump, however, these trends are probably with us to stay for a while. I don't think we've heard the last of the drone-warfare revolution yet.
submitted by AmericanNewt8 to neoliberal

/r/neoliberal elects the American Presidents - Part 54, Obama v McCain in 2008

Previous editions:
(All strawpoll results counted as of the next post made)
Part 1, Adams v Jefferson in 1796 - Adams wins with 68% of the vote
Part 2, Adams v Jefferson in 1800 - Jefferson wins with 58% of the vote
Part 3, Jefferson v Pinckney in 1804 - Jefferson wins with 57% of the vote
Part 4, Madison v Pinckney (with George Clinton protest) in 1808 - Pinckney wins with 45% of the vote
Part 5, Madison v (DeWitt) Clinton in 1812 - Clinton wins with 80% of the vote
Part 6, Monroe v King in 1816 - Monroe wins with 51% of the vote
Part 7, Monroe and an Era of Meta Feelings in 1820 - Monroe wins with 100% of the vote
Part 8, Democratic-Republican Thunderdome in 1824 - Adams wins with 55% of the vote
Part 9, Adams v Jackson in 1828 - Adams wins with 94% of the vote
Part 10, Jackson v Clay (v Wirt) in 1832 - Clay wins with 53% of the vote
Part 11, Van Buren v The Whigs in 1836 - Whigs win with 87% of the vote, Webster elected
Part 12, Van Buren v Harrison in 1840 - Harrison wins with 90% of the vote
Part 13, Polk v Clay in 1844 - Polk wins with 59% of the vote
Part 14, Taylor v Cass in 1848 - Taylor wins with 44% of the vote (see special rules)
Part 15, Pierce v Scott in 1852 - Scott wins with 78% of the vote
Part 16, Buchanan v Frémont v Fillmore in 1856 - Frémont wins with 95% of the vote
Part 17, Peculiar Thunderdome in 1860 - Lincoln wins with 90% of the vote.
Part 18, Lincoln v McClellan in 1864 - Lincoln wins with 97% of the vote.
Part 19, Grant v Seymour in 1868 - Grant wins with 97% of the vote.
Part 20, Grant v Greeley in 1872 - Grant wins with 96% of the vote.
Part 21, Hayes v Tilden in 1876 - Hayes wins with 87% of the vote.
Part 22, Garfield v Hancock in 1880 - Garfield wins with 67% of the vote.
Part 23, Cleveland v Blaine in 1884 - Cleveland wins with 53% of the vote.
Part 24, Cleveland v Harrison in 1888 - Harrison wins with 64% of the vote.
Part 25, Cleveland v Harrison v Weaver in 1892 - Harrison wins with 57% of the vote
Part 26, McKinley v Bryan in 1896 - McKinley wins with 71% of the vote
Part 27, McKinley v Bryan in 1900 - Bryan wins with 55% of the vote
Part 28, Roosevelt v Parker in 1904 - Roosevelt wins with 71% of the vote
Part 29, Taft v Bryan in 1908 - Taft wins with 64% of the vote
Part 30, Taft v Wilson v Roosevelt in 1912 - Roosevelt wins with 81% of the vote
Part 31, Wilson v Hughes in 1916 - Hughes wins with 62% of the vote
Part 32, Harding v Cox in 1920 - Cox wins with 68% of the vote
Part 33, Coolidge v Davis v La Follette in 1924 - Davis wins with 47% of the vote
Part 34, Hoover v Smith in 1928 - Hoover wins with 50.2% of the vote
Part 35, Hoover v Roosevelt in 1932 - Roosevelt wins with 85% of the vote
Part 36, Landon v Roosevelt in 1936 - Roosevelt wins with 75% of the vote
Part 37, Willkie v Roosevelt in 1940 - Roosevelt wins with 56% of the vote
Part 38, Dewey v Roosevelt in 1944 - Dewey wins with 50.2% of the vote
Part 39, Dewey v Truman in 1948 - Truman wins with 65% of the vote
Part 40, Eisenhower v Stevenson in 1952 - Eisenhower wins with 69% of the vote
Part 41, Eisenhower v Stevenson in 1956 - Eisenhower wins with 60% of the vote
Part 42, Kennedy v Nixon in 1960 - Kennedy wins with 63% of the vote
Part 43, Johnson v Goldwater in 1964 - Johnson wins with 87% of the vote
Part 44, Nixon v Humphrey in 1968 - Humphrey wins with 60% of the vote
Part 45, Nixon v McGovern in 1972 - Nixon wins with 56% of the vote
Part 46, Carter v Ford in 1976 - Carter wins with 71% of the vote
Part 47 - Carter v Reagan v Anderson in 1980 - Carter wins with 44% of the vote
Part 48, Reagan v Mondale in 1984 - Mondale wins with 55% of the vote
Part 49, Bush v Dukakis in 1988 - Bush wins with 54% of the vote
Part 50, Bush v Clinton v Perot in 1992 - Clinton wins with 71% of the vote
Part 51, Clinton v Dole in 1996 - Clinton wins with 91% of the vote
Part 52, Bush v Gore in 2000 - Gore wins with 88% of the vote
Part 53, Bush v Kerry in 2004 - Kerry wins with 89% of the vote
Welcome back to the fifty-fourth edition of /neoliberal elects the American presidents!
This will be a fairly consistent weekly thing - every week, a new election, until we run out.
I highly encourage you - at least in terms of the vote you cast - to try to think from the perspective of the year the election was held, without knowing the future or how the next administration would go. I'm not going to be trying to enforce that, but feel free to remind fellow commenters of this distinction.
If you're really feeling hardcore, feel free to even speak in the present tense as if the election is truly upcoming!
Whether third and fourth candidates are considered "major" enough to include in the strawpoll will be largely at my discretion and depend on things like whether they were actually intending to run for President, and whether they wound up actually pulling in a meaningful amount of the popular vote and even electoral votes. I may also invoke special rules in how the results will be interpreted in certain elections to better approximate historical reality.
While I will always give some brief background info to spur the discussion, please don't hesitate to bring your own research and knowledge into the mix! There's no way I'll cover everything!
John McCain v Barack Obama, 2008
Profiles
  • John McCain is the 72-year-old Republican candidate and a US Senator from Arizona. His running mate is Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin.
  • Barack Obama is the 47-year-old Democratic candidate and a US Senator from Illinois. His running mate is US Senator from Delaware Joe Biden.
Issues and Background
  • The United States and other countries are in the midst of what many are describing as the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. The crisis was largely triggered by a collapse in home prices, which in turn caused securities tied directly or indirectly to real estate to plummet in value. In September, major investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. A day later, the Federal Reserve bailed out and essentially took control of insurance giant AIG. Credit markets were on the brink of meltdown. In early October, Congress passed the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act, which created an enormous government program to purchase "toxic assets" from banks and significantly increased the amount of insurance provided by the FDIC. Both McCain and Obama supported this rescue plan. Liquidity appears to have been restored, but the economic situation is still otherwise dire.
    • Senator Obama has described the current crisis as a "final verdict on eight years of failed economic policies promoted by George Bush, supported by Senator McCain, a theory that basically says that we can shred regulations and consumer protections and give more and more to the most, and somehow prosperity will trickle down." Obama has spoken of the importance of oversight over the TARP $700 billion, of the possibility of getting that money back, of making sure none of that money is going to executive pay or executive severance packages, and of following up the package with help for homeowners.
    • Senator McCain has said that what distinguishes him from Senator Obama on how he will lead the country out of the economic crisis is his commitment to get government spending under control. McCain has proposed a one-year spending freeze on "non-defense, non-veterans discretionary spending." McCain has criticized Senator Obama for supporting "pork-barrel spending" in the past.
  • The US occupation of Iraq continues. Last year, the Bush Administration oversaw a troop surge, and the conventional wisdom is that the situation has generally improved as a result. There are some indications that the security situation is improving and that the training of the new Iraqi military is working. That said, pressure on the US to withdraw has increased, as the Iraqi government has sought a withdrawal timetable and the US coalition partners have begun their own withdraw. Security responsibility for several provinces has already been transferred from US forces to Iraqi forces. However, earlier this year, General David Petraeus called for the delaying of troop withdrawals.
    • Both candidates accuse the other of failures of judgement. Senator Obama has criticized McCain sharply for supporting invading Iraq in the first place, while Senator McCain has criticized Obama for not supporting the 2007 surge. On the latter point, in January 2007 Senator Obama's stance was:
      The need to bring this war to an end is here. That is why today I am introducing the Iraq War De-escalation Act of 2007. This plan would not only place a cap on the number of troops in Iraq and stop the escalation: more importantly, it would begin a phased redeployment of United States forced with the goal of removing all United States combat forces from Iraq by March 31, 2008.
    • Early this year, Democrats seized on a statement from Senator McCain in which he indicated that he would be comfortable with an American presence in Iraq for "maybe 100" years. He has stood by the comments, saying he was referring to a presence comparable to what the US has had in South Korea, Germany, and Japan.
    • Under the Obama plan for Iraq, a phased withdrawal of most troops would begin which would likely remove the US troop presence by summer of 2010. A residual force would remain "to conduct targeted counter-terrorism missions against al Qaeda in Iraq and to protect American diplomatic and civilian personnel."
    • Under the McCain plan for Iraq, the US would not leave Iraq "before Al Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and before a competent, trained, and capable Iraqi security force is in place and operating effectively."
  • Sarah Palin has received a significant amount of both positive and negative attention relative to most VP nominees. Supporters praise her history as a reformer, her advocacy for families with special needs children, and her ability to energize parts of the Republican base. However, critics have raised questions about her knowledge of policy and her readiness to be President if it became necessary. Some in the media have expressed frustration at their limited access to Governor Palin. This scrutiny increased following a poorly received interview with Katie Couric which included the following exchanges:
    COURIC: You've cited Alaska's proximity to Russia as part of your foreign policy experience. What did you mean by that?
    PALIN: That Alaska has a very narrow maritime border between a foreign country, Russia, and on our other side, the land boundary that we have with Canada ... We have trade missions back and forth. We -- we do -- it's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the airspace of the United States of America, where -- where do they go? It's Alaska. It's just right over the border. It is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation, Russia, because they are right there. They are right next to -- to our state.
    ...
    COURIC: What other Supreme Court decisions do you disagree with?
    PALIN: Well, let’s see. There’s, of course in the great history of America there have been rulings, that’s never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade, where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know, going through the history of America, there would be others but …
    COURIC: Can you think of any?
    PALIN: Well, I could think of … any again, that could be best dealt with on a more local level. Maybe I would take issue with. But, you know, as mayor, and then as governor and even as a vice president, if I’m so privileged to serve, wouldn’t be in a position of changing those things but in supporting the law of the land as it reads today.
    ...
    COURIC: And when it comes to establishing your worldview, I was curious, what newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?
    PALIN: I’ve read most of them, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media.
    COURIC: What, specifically?
    PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me all these years.
    COURIC: Can you name a few?
    PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news, too. Alaska isn’t a foreign country, where it’s kind of suggested, “Wow, how could you keep in touch with what the rest of Washington, D.C., may be thinking when you live up there in Alaska?”
  • Health care reform has come up frequently on the campaign trail. Both candidates recognize a need to increase coverage and lower costs.
    • The Obama plan includes requiring health insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions, a tax credit to incentivize small businesses to provide health coverage, requirements on large employers to provide health coverage or otherwise contribute financially to their employee's health care, and "a National Health Insurance Exchange with a range of private insurance options as well as a new public plan based on benefits available to members of Congress."
    • The McCain plan is to offer "a direct refundable tax credit ... of $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families to offset the cost of insurance" and promote health savings accounts. McCain also seeks to make it easier to purchase health insurance across state lines.
  • Attention has also been given to the candidate's differing tax plans.
    • The Obama tax plan is to cut taxes for the middle class further than the Bush tax cuts did, while increasing taxes on the wealthiest 2% of Americans back to levels as they were in the 1990s. Senator Obama also seeks to implement a universal 10% mortgage interest tax credit, the elimination of income taxes for seniors making less than $50,000 a year, and an expansion of the EITC.
    • The McCain tax plan is to preserve all of the Bush tax cuts, phase out the Alternative Minimum Tax, cut the corporate tax rate to 25%, and establish a large R&D tax credit. Senator McCain also pledges to keep the Internet free of taxes.
    • In October at a campaign stop, Senator Obama was confronted by Joe Wurzelbacher, who has since become known colloquially as "Joe the Plumber", with concerns that he would be taxed more if Senator Obama were to become President. More recently, Wurzelbacher has made joint appearances with John McCain on the campaign trail. The McCain campaign has in particular seized on Obama's comment to Joe that "I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
  • McCain, currently 72, would be the oldest first-term President if elected. McCain gave reporters an opportunity to review his full medical records, which showed that he is generally in good health and has relatively low risk of heart disease despite slightly elevated cholesterol and past issues with skin cancer.
  • If elected, Senator Obama would be the first African-American President of the United States. Obama was born in Hawaii, the son of a Kenyan economist and an anthropologist from Kansas. While many find the possibility of the first African-American President inspiring, particularly when combined with the optimistic rhetoric of Senator Obama's campaign, his identity has also been related to unique challenges for him during the campaign. Members of his own party during the primary implied that his success in the race was mainly due to his race. Former VP nominee Geraldine Ferraro said:
    If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.
    Senator Biden, now Obama's running mate, said:
    I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man.
    In addition, Senator Obama has faced false rumors that he was born in Kenya and that he is not Christian. Some argue that the spread of these rumors is motivated partially or entirely by racism.
  • Republicans have argued that Senator Obama is connected to problematic persons and organizations.
    • Roughly 40 years ago, now-professor Bill Ayers was a leading member of the militant Weather Underground Organization, which conducted a bombing campaign of targeting government buildings and financial institutions. Ayers first met Barack Obama through a non-profit reform project's board of directors, and later hosted a small informal event where a departing State Senator introduced Obama as her chosen successor. Through each of their active involvements in Chicago events and initiatives, they would serve on a couple of the same boards and panels in the years afterwards. There is virtually no evidence to support some Republican claims that Ayers was some sort of political adviser to Obama, who has referred to Ayers as "somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8."
    • Senator Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, has been the subject of controversy related to several sermon excerpts. The excerpts include claims that the government lied about its advance knowledge of Pearl Harbor, that the government lied about "inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color," and his comment that "America's chickens are coming home to roost," interpreted by some to be referring to the 9/11 attacks given the date of the sermon. President Obama addressed the issue in a broader speech on race in March of this year. Senator Obama stated:
      I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely—just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
      ...
      I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother—a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
    • Pro-labor NGO ACORN has been accused by Republicans of orchestrating voter fraud, though further investigation has revealed this claim to be overstated at best. ACORN has hired people in the past to assist in voter registration, and sometimes these workers have come up with phony registrations - however, this issue seems to be motivated by laziness of individual workers rather than an attempt to conduct voter fraud. Obama served as a local counsel for ACORN in the 90s, and was endorsed by the ACORN political action committee during the primary. The Obama campaign also hired an ACORN affiliate for get-out-the-vote efforts during the primary.
  • Representative John Lewis, a civil rights icon, has received blowback for comments he made regarding the tone of the McCain/Palin campaign. Lewis accused the campaign of "sowing the seeds of hatred and division," and brought up the example of George Wallace never throwing a bomb or firing a gun but creating "the climate and the conditions that encouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans." McCain called the comments "hurtful" and called on Senator Obama to repudiate the comments. The Obama campaign has said that the comparison made by Rep. Lewis was inappropriate.
  • Senator McCain describes himself as a "free trader" and has criticized Senator Obama for opposing some free trade agreements. The Obama team has pledged to "use trade agreements to spread good labor and environmental standards around the world and stand firm against agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement that fail to live up to those important benchmarks." Senator Obama has also pledged to "fix" NAFTA.
Debate Excerpts
First Presidential Debate (full transcript)
(1) Obama on government spending:
John, it's been your president who you said you agreed with 90 percent of the time who presided over this increase in spending. This orgy of spending and enormous deficits you voted for almost all of his budgets. So to stand here and after eight years and say that you're going to lead on controlling spending and, you know, balancing our tax cuts so that they help middle class families when over the last eight years that hasn't happened I think just is, you know, kind of hard to swallow.
(2) McCain on Iraq:
I think the lessons of Iraq are very clear that you cannot have a failed strategy that will then cause you to nearly lose a conflict. Our initial military success, we went in to Baghdad and everybody celebrated. And then the war was very badly mishandled. I went to Iraq in 2003 and came back and said, we've got to change this strategy. This strategy requires additional troops, it requires a fundamental change in strategy and I fought for it. And finally, we came up with a great general and a strategy that has succeeded.
(3) Obama on meeting foreign adversaries "without precondition":
I reserve the right, as president of the United States to meet with anybody at a time and place of my choosing if I think it's going to keep America safe ... Now, understand what this means "without preconditions." It doesn't mean that you invite them over for tea one day. What it means is that we don't do what we've been doing, which is to say, "Until you agree to do exactly what we say, we won't have direct contacts with you."
(4) McCain on Iran:
My reading of the threat from Iran is that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is an existential threat to the State of Israel and to other countries in the region because the other countries in the region will feel compelling requirement to acquire nuclear weapons as well.
Now we cannot have a second Holocaust. Let's just make that very clear. What I have proposed for a long time, and I've had conversation with foreign leaders about forming a league of democracies, let's be clear and let's have some straight talk. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council.
Vice-Presidential Debate (full transcript)
(1) Biden on what his administration would look like if a President Obama were to die in office:
God forbid that would ever happen, it would be a national tragedy of historic proportions if it were to happen.
But if it did, I would carry out Barack Obama's policy, his policies of reinstating the middle class, making sure they get a fair break, making sure they have access to affordable health insurance, making sure they get serious tax breaks, making sure we can help their children get to college, making sure there is an energy policy that leads us in the direction of not only toward independence and clean environment but an energy policy that creates 5 million new jobs, a foreign policy that ends this war in Iraq, a foreign policy that goes after the one mission the American public gave the president after 9/11, to get and capture or kill bin Laden and to eliminate al Qaeda. A policy that would in fact engage our allies in making sure that we knew we were acting on the same page and not dictating.
(2) Palin on what her administration would look like if a President McCain were to die in office:
And heaven forbid, yes, that would ever happen, no matter how this ends up, that that would ever happen with either party.
As for disagreeing with John McCain and how our administration would work, what do you expect? A team of mavericks, of course we're not going to agree on 100 percent of everything. As we discuss ANWR there, at least we can agree to disagree on that one. I will keep pushing him on ANWR. I have so appreciated he has never asked me to check my opinions at the door and he wants a deliberative debate and healthy debate so we can make good policy.
What I would do also, if that were to ever happen, though, is to continue the good work he is so committed to of putting government back on the side of the people and get rid of the greed and corruption on Wall Street and in Washington.
Second Presidential Debate (Town Hall) (full transcript)
(1) McCain on nuclear energy:
But we kept the debate going, and we kept this issue to -- to posing to Americans the danger that climate change opposes. Now, how -- what's -- what's the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power. Senator Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that. Look, I -- I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it's clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs.
(2) Obama on McCain's criticism that he's being reckless on foreign policy:
Senator McCain, this is the guy who sang, "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran," who called for the annihilation of North Korea. That I don't think is an example of "speaking softly." This is the person who, after we had -- we hadn't even finished Afghanistan, where he said, "Next up, Baghdad."
(3) McCain on Russia:
I said before, watch Ukraine. Ukraine, right now, is in the sights of Vladimir Putin, those that want to reassemble the old Soviet Union. We've got to show moral support for Georgia.We've got to show moral support for Ukraine. We've got to advocate for their membership in NATO. We have to make the Russians understand that there are penalties for these this kind of behavior, this kind of naked aggression into Georgia, a tiny country and a tiny democracy.
(4) Obama on spending priorities:
You know, you may have seen your health care premiums go up. We've got to reform health care to help you and your budget. We are going to have to deal with energy because we can't keep on borrowing from the Chinese and sending money to Saudi Arabia. We are mortgaging our children's future. We've got to have a different energy plan. We've got to invest in college affordability. So we're going to have to make some investments, but we've also got to make spending cuts. And what I've proposed, you'll hear Senator McCain say, well, he's proposing a whole bunch of new spending, but actually I'm cutting more than I'm spending so that it will be a net spending cut.
Third Presidential Debate (full transcript)
(1) McCain on Obama's economic plans:
I don't think there's any doubt that Sen. Obama wants to restrict trade and he wants to raise taxes. And the last president of the United States that tried that was Herbert Hoover, and we went from a deep recession into a depression.
(2) Obama on comments by Congressman Lewis:
I mean, look, if we want to talk about Congressman Lewis, who is an American hero, he, unprompted by my campaign, without my campaign's awareness, made a statement that he was troubled with what he was hearing at some of the rallies that your running mate was holding, in which all the Republican reports indicated were shouting, when my name came up, things like "terrorist" and "kill him," and that your running mate didn't mention, didn't stop, didn't say "Hold on a second, that's kind of out of line."
(3) McCain on Obama's connections:
I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist [Bill Ayers]. But as Sen. Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.
We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy. The same front outfit organization that your campaign gave $832,000 for "lighting and site selection." So all of these things need to be examined, of course.
(4) Obama on who he associates with:
Let me tell you who I associate with. On economic policy, I associate with Warren Buffett and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker. If I'm interested in figuring out my foreign policy, I associate myself with my running mate, Joe Biden or with Dick Lugar, the Republican ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or General Jim Jones, the former supreme allied commander of NATO.
Those are the people, Democrats and Republicans, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House. And I think the fact that this has become such an important part of your campaign, Sen. McCain, says more about your campaign than it says about me.
Platforms
Read the full 2008 Republican platform here.
Read the full 2008 Democratic platform here.
Internet Resources
Obama/Biden Website
McCain/Palin Website
The GOP's BarackBook
The Obama Campaign's Fight the Smears
Videos
Debates
First Presidential Debate
Vice-Presidential Debate
Second Presidential Debate (Town Hall)
Third Presidential Debate
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Obama "same path" ad
Obama "McCain tax" ad
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McCain "fight" ad
McCain anti-Obama "celebrity" ad
McCain anti-Obama Bill Ayers ad
Strawpoll
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