In 2008, a pre-9/11 election

It’s borderline unimaginable. Just seven years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Middle East policy debate is stuck in a rhetorical trench about which viewpoint has more presidential weight: Sen. Barack Obama’s about the Iraq war or Sen. John McCain’s about the surge.

A few recent events should be mentioned: Publication of a novel about the wife of the prophet Muhammad was delayed after a bomb attack on the publisher’s home; a Saudi cleric declared it permissible to kill broadcasters of regional soap operas that hint at drinking and premarital sex; and a televised spat between prominent Sunni and Shiite clerics is inciting sectarian tensions across the region.

This part of the world — where rights are anathema, moderate opinion is silent and messages of hate and violence possess real resonance — has persisted as a greenhouse that nourishes a culture inimical to American values.

It would be easy to blame the highly circumscribed presidential campaign discussion on recent preoccupation with the stumbling economy. Easy but wrong, because unwillingness to treat foreign policy seriously has been standard in myriad debates over 22 months.

Both Sens. Obama (D-Ill.) and McCain (R-Ariz.) have acknowledged the general need for an atmospheric foreign policy approach, connecting efforts to confront global disease, poverty and the deprivation of democratic norms to the creation of a climate in which our strategic interests could be fulfilled.

The disheartening reality is accept what we swore we would never return to — a shallow, situational foreign policy in which the nation focuses only on how to respond to existing threats.

There is no greater commitment to the International Youth Opportunity Fund, proposed by the 9/11 Commission to create and improve schools in the Middle East; no talk about increasing, with proper safeguards, student visas to give young Arabs a life to strive for; no talk about attaching human rights requirements to appropriations and arms agreements with countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

It’s hard to blame Obama or McCain individually. The quagmire of Iraq has made it the 2008 campaign’s infertile ground for an honest exchange of ideas about the Middle East.

But I am not referring to any literal quagmire — Iraq’s improved security and political reconciliation, or deterioration in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will mean redeploying U.S. armed forces during the next presidential term. No, what I am referring to is the mental quagmire on Capitol Hill.

The politics of Iraq forced Democrats and Republicans off common ground. Ignoring the merit of the other side’s arguments earned political capital, so both parties were wittingly blind to integral lessons.

Republicans, presenting the war as necessary, and irreversible victory as the only acceptable goal, dismissed policy that looked more like a police effort in which America built relationships with nations in the region and established a framework in which it could defend and spread our ideals.

Democrats, attacking the war while sloughing off any responsibility for it or its outcome, ignored the fact that the Middle East status quo was and is untenable and offered no serious alternative policy to the administration’s.

These two angry solitudes came to define conversation outside of the Beltway and distract America from acknowledging our post-9/11 responsibility to help the region navigate toward political and economic modernity.

This election cycle gives Democrats their strongest shot at complete power since 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson obliterated Barry Goldwater and the party acquired a two-thirds majority in both chambers.

If this happens, the party will need to remind Americans that our long-term threat will come from a dirty bomb of a Middle Eastern terrorist, not a collateralized debt obligation of a Wall Street trader. The next Congress will have to persuade the nation that our substantive, long-term involvement in the Middle East is necessary to our security.

This call will have to be bipartisan and so will require a major shift in the existing discussion, a shift that will have to come from Democrats if they triumph next month, as they probably will.

What they will grasp fairly quickly — Obama in particular if elected — is that mere opposition to the war is not a credible Middle East policy. In this, they will learn the difference between a tactic and a strategy.

Mikhail is a former staff writer for The Hill.