Why Mitt Romney can't talk about Iraq

Sectarian tensions are once again rising perilously in Iraq after a court in Baghdad sentenced Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi to death in absentia -- on the same day that insurgents launched a wave of attacks across the country that killed nearly 100 people. But, judging from this year's campaign rhetoric, you probably won't hear Mitt Romney criticizing Barack Obama for the precarious situation in Iraq following the U.S. troop withdrawal.

According to a University of California, Santa Barbara archive of formal campaign speeches by both candidates, Romney has used the word "Iraq" seven times on the trail (usually in the context of military service) while Obama has referenced the country 76 times (often as part of a stump-speech line about keeping his promise to end the war). The same pattern held true at the conventions: Republicans mentioned Iraq seven times, while the Democrats did so 34 times. Romney didn't talk about Iraq in his convention speech and made only a passing reference to it in his biggest foreign-policy address of the campaign in South Carolina.  

Romney might argue, as he has in defending his failure to mention the Afghan war in Tampa, that it's his policies that matter, not how many times he mentions particular words in speeches. But he's been equally evasive when outlining how he would have managed the Iraq war. When Obama announced in October 2011 that all U.S. troops would leave Iraq by the end of the year, Romney lashed out at the president for not securing an "orderly transition in Iraq" and publicizing the recommendations of military commanders (the 2012 GOP platform doesn't mention these criticisms).

In a Fox News interview two months later, Romney's position on Iraq grew murkier. He noted that U.S. troops were "fortunately" withdrawing from Iraq before adding that he would have left a residual force in the country. He followed those comments up by refusing to answer whether he would send U.S. troops back to Iraq as president:

Why is Romney so hesitant to talk about Iraq? The bottom line is that the unpopular war, which is fading fast from voters' minds, is a political loser for the GOP candidate. A Washington Post-ABC News poll in November 2011 revealed that nearly eight in ten Americans approved of Obama's decision to withdraw combat troops from Iraq (including 58 percent of Republicans and 81 percent of independent voters).  A CNN/ORC International poll a month later found that more than half of Americans felt sending troops to Iraq in the first place was a mistake and that 57 percent believed the Bush administration misled the American public about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. Fifty-four percent of respondents in an NBC News/Wall Street Journal/Telemundo survey this summer claimed that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had contributed most to the federal budget deficit -- a flashpoint in the campaign.  

Every time Romney mentions Iraq, moreover, he exposes himself to charges that he is aligned with George W. Bush and the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party -- an association that might just stick given the debate over whether, when it comes to foreign policy, Romney is a neoconservative, realist, or another breed altogether. This is precisely the attack that the Obama campaign leveled in June by linking Romney to Bush's former U.N. ambassador John Bolton and his "reckless neoconservative thinking." And it's what Obama himself implied in his convention speech by arguing that Romney and running mate Paul Ryan "want to take us back to an era of blustering and blundering that cost America so dearly."

Obama has already taken Romney's words on Iraq out of context to support this back-to-Bush argument, asserting that the Republican candidate said ending the war in Iraq would be "tragic" (Romney argued that the pace of the withdrawal was tragic). The Romney campaign isn't about to give the president any more ammunition.

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Syrian cyberwar rages on

They're at it again. The BBC reported on Monday that Al Jazeera was the latest media outlet to feel the wrath of the Syrian Electronic Army, a group of pro-Assad hackers who have recently been running amok in cyberspace. This time, the Qatar-based news station's Arabic SMS service was compromised, and three fake texts were sent to all subscribers. One reportedly announced that Qatar's prime minister had been the target of an assassination attempt while another added that the wife of Qatar's emir had been wounded.

Last Tuesday, Reuters reported that Al Jazeera Arabic's home page was hacked by another pro-Syrian group calling itself "al-Rashedon." The hackers posted a Syrian flag and a statement denouncing the station for its ‘‘position against Syria (people and government) and for special support of the militant terrorism" underneath a large red stamp with the word "hack."

Reuters may have been relieved that they weren't the targets this time. As Foreign Policy recently noted, the British wire service was hacked three times during the month of August. The hackers sent fake tweets from the Reuters Twitter account and also put up false posts on one of its blogs.

Also in August, Amnesty International's blog Livewire was targeted by another pro-Assad hacker group that accused the rebel army of committing massacres that have been linked to government forces. The attack, which was not claimed by any specific group of hackers, included a false blog post lamenting that "it is clear the Al Qaeda affiliated rebels are not going to stop their crimes. And with no accountability and a steady supply of weapons, why should they given they have come this far under NATO protection?"

Another one of the false posts was titled "Amnesty Calls on UN to stop the US, Qatar and Turkey funding and arming Syria Rebels," and created the impression that Amnesty International was condemning NATO and the US for meddling in the Syrian civil war. Sanjeev Bery, Amnesty International's USA advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa, explained the attack in an article published on the group's website:

"It's entirely possible that, given that we've been so forthright in criticizing the Syrian government for its crimes against humanity; that could conceivably make us the target of some kind of campaign."


As the actual war in Syria continues to spiral out of control, the long and dirty cyberwar between hackers loyal to Assad and those who support the rebels shows no signs of slowing. News organizations across the world are likely buttoning up their security systems and wondering who the next victim will be.