John McCain talks a lot about the MiddleEast and the threat of "radical Islamic terrorism." He challenged Barack Obama to take a tour with him of Iraq so McCain could educate him on the country -- so Obama could get in touch with the facts on the ground. In his celebrated tour of Iraq in March, McCain made a show of visiting an open-air market in Baghdad, saying that Americans weren't getting a full picture of the progress being made there and pointing out that he could walk freely through whole neighborhoods in the city. As it turned out McCain walked nowhere freely. He wore a bullet proof vest the entire time and in the open-air market enjoyed the company of one hundred American soldiers, three Blackhawk helicopters, and two Apache gunships.
Obama in his speech in Minnesota last week, when he effectively clinched the Democratic Party nomination, talked about Iraq, but mostly to scold Iraqi politicians for not stepping up and taking responsibility for running their country.
Suffice to say, in the five years since the U.S. "liberated" Iraq, we have learned very little about the country from our leaders. They tell us nothing, if they know anything, about daily life there in the wake of the "liberation" and in the midst of the ongoing occupation and civil war.
The blogosphere has more answers.
One of the weekly videos produced by the news program "Alive in Baghdad" details the problem of getting clean drinking water in Shama'iya, for example, a neighborhood in east Baghdad. In the video, residents describe the infrastructure and sanitation problems as clips show streets running with trash and overflowing sewage. A man holds up his pant legs, trying to avoid getting splattered as he walks awkwardly through the filthy streets. The video ends with an image of a young boy hanging out on the corner, rummaging through heaps of garbage.
Shama'iya sanitation problems are not a major concern to key voting groups such as Latinos in New Mexico and middle class voters in Ohio. But seeing to the basic sanitation infrastructure, the availability of clean drinking water, in the country will be a key part of any genuine successful strategy on Iraq and our eventual withdrawal.
Indeed, the larger humanitarian crisis caused by the war is rarely spoken of but is plain to see on the web. The ongoing conflict has displaced about 2.5 million Iraqis inside the country. Another 2 million have fled the violence and now reside in neighboring countries like Jordan and Syria.
"It's a huge disappointment that this has not been a larger issue in the campaign to date," Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee told OffTheBus. "It's really been hardly mentioned."
President Bush has said even less about the problem.
"It is highly symbolic that the president of the United States who started this war has yet to publicly talk about its humanitarian impact," said Jacob Kurtzer of Refugees International. "The fact that the president has not publicly acknowledged the extent of the problem, hasn't said publicly that the U.S is committed to helping refugees, this is a discredit to the office and the person."
Kurtzer said the lack of attention paid the humanitarian crisis in Iraq by President Bush affects the millions of displaced people there because it sends a message to decision-makers here.
"The president has never even mentioned the Iraq refugees as a concern," Kurtzer said. "It filters down to people [working in the administration] as not a priority."
Bloggers and journalists living in Iraq and its neighboring countries -- including both those of Middle Eastern descent and Westerners traveling there -- have taken it upon themselves to fill the void.
Alive in Baghdad, for example, is created by a team of Americans and Iraqi correspondents on the ground. Their videos have covered topics such as the 5 million Iraqi orphans, the plight of displaced Sunni families, and the difficulties finding and holding down a job when electricity outages prevent the completion of projects and car bombs interrupt lunch breaks.
In a video on the difficulties involved in going to university in Iraq, a graduate student explains that many of the professors are missing because they have fled the country due to the ongoing violence. A female student says the situation is improving, but parents have been reluctant to send their children to school because they would hear stories about abductions and the targeting of students.
A young man named Wahid Hashem Kadhem describes the difference between getting an education under Saddam Hussein and now. The translations read: "During the buried regime, we were able to move freely, we did not think an explosion might happen, we used to think just of our work, and we did not think that an explosion or a bomb might blow up. It has become a buried regime and it passed away, but now we have a new government and it must provide a peaceful environment for the students. This is the simplest thing we ask the government for."
Update: Although you will search long and hard and find very little of substance said on the stump by either of the candidates on the humanitarian crisis caused by the war -- much less on their plans to address it -- Barack Obama's website includes a six-page Iraq Fact Sheet , a section of which reports that he intends to "increase American investment in Iraq's refugees and internally displaced people and to the neighboring countries that house them to at least $2 billion."
The John McCain campaign has yet to get back to OffTheBus.