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COVER STORY: Exit Strategies

By Stan Karp

Assuming the planet survives the remaining months of the George W. Bush era, 2008 will bring a presidential campaign and renewed debate over federal education policy. The last time this happened, Bush dropped bombs on Iraq and the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) on the public schools, reminders that it's never too early to be on the lookout for "weapons of mass destruction."

Early campaigning has been dominated by fundraising, media hype, and what Bush Sr. once called "the vision thing." None of the candidates has issued major policy statements on education or made it a centerpiece of their domestic proposals (as, for example, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton have done with health care.) But the candidates' positioning on the campaign's central issue — Iraq — may offer some indications of what to expect when it comes to revisiting federal education policies that have been radically altered by NCLB.

The war is forcing all candidates to position themselves somewhere between Bush's disastrous imperial venture and growing antiwar sentiment. Majority popular opinion is now firmly on the side of withdrawing U.S. troops, the sooner, the better, and fewer people than ever seem to share Hillary Clinton's reluctance to admit that the war was a mistake that should have never been authorized. On the Republican side, the candidate most closely identified with Bush's policies, John McCain, appears to be sinking from the weight.

But Congressional Democrats are also finding out how difficult it is to clearly define an alternative strategy when you share many of the essential premises of the administration's foreign policy and its so-called "war on terror." This hollow rhetorical framework has replaced "the war on communism" as the all-purpose rationale for pursuing elite military and corporate interests, up to and including preemptive war, regime change, and unilateral violation of international law and human rights. None of the major party presidential candidates (with the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich) has explicitly rejected the premises of the "war on terror." The two Democratic front-runners, Clinton and Barack Obama, regularly pledge to continue it more effectively. (See, for example, Obama's March 7 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee). Even Edwards, who speaks compellingly about the need to reduce global poverty as "a matter of U.S. national security," has threatened military action against Iran and defended the status quo in the Middle East.

All the candidates want to redeploy American troops from Iraq to Afghanistan or elsewhere in the region to protect U.S. oil interests and shore up client regimes. All have endorsed giving "benchmarks" to the Iraqi government as a condition of ongoing U.S. aid. This use of the jargon of educational assessment to cobble together an "Exit Strategy" from Iraq has particular irony for teachers. The U.S. launched unprovoked military aggression against a repressive regime it had helped prop up for years. It followed its invasion with a brutal and corrupt occupation that has precipitated suicidal sectarian strife and inevitable armed resistance at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives and casualties. And now the architects of this disaster want to impose "benchmarks" — standards and tests — on the occupied victims. Another "high stakes exit exam" imposed from afar by the powers that be.

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