The network ran Obama's riposte, in which he argued that there was no such thing as "al-Qaeda in Iraq" before the invasion. His observation was meant to make their presence President Bush's fault. Obama presumably draws a distinction from the terrorists' mere presence in the country and their ability to form a base, but Mr. Right never got to that point in the argument. He disagreed strongly with the assertion that al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before 2003.
I reminded him that it was impossible for there to be an "al-Qaeda in Iraq" before Saddam fell, because any organization that declared its existence by that name would have been wiped out quickly by Saddam's secret police.
He remained convinced that there were terrorists in the country before the invasion, and that Saddam trained terrorists there. I conceded that point, but the question was about "al-Qaeda." I insisted that there was no way that a self-proclaimed "al-Qaeda" could exist in Iraq when Osama bin Laden was a known enemy of Saddam.
Since he couldn't answer that point, the conversation petered out. I found it useful because it reminded me that labels like "al-Qaeda" only obfuscate the real issue in the Middle East. It's been obvious all along that suppressing that group has not been the Bush Administration's highest priority. Bush's "war on terror" is more general in scope. It's really a campaign against anyone who might challenge the world order that was imposed in the region during the 20th century. There are many groups with such intentions, many of which have never struck a blow against the United States. But the Bushies are happy to blur distinctions in order to convince us that anyone with a beef in the Middle East really just wants to kill Americans because they hate our freedom. The Bushies think that arguments like Obama's are merely splitting hairs, because they think they've had enemies in Iraq all along regardless of whether you or I have.
For the record, this is what Obama said at the debate -- figure it out for yourself.
As commander in chief, I will always reserve the right to make sure that we are looking out for American interests. And if al Qaeda is forming a base in Iraq, then we will have to act in a way that secures the American homeland and our interests abroad.