Bum And Bummer: Debate On Iraq Was A Disgrace

Less than 60 seconds into his first two-minute answer at last Thursday night’s Presidential debate, the Democratic candidate made the single most important statement about Iraq in this campaign, and he made it with the clarity and brevity that so often eludes him.

“We’re now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq,” said Senator John Kerry for the first of three times, “and 90 percent of the costs.”

“No, Senator,” I said back to my television set, “Iraqis are way over 90 percent of the casualties. And Iraqis are paying more than anyone.”

What Mr. Kerry was saying—and President George W. Bush kept saying it, too—was that, for purposes of Iraq as an issue in this debate and in this election, Iraqis could not matter less.

As post-game analysts were quick to point out, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are offering the American people two very clear, very opposed visions of Iraq. For Mr. Bush, Iraq is the tree of liberty that can only grow in blood, and everything that’s happened so far is just all in a day’s “hard work” of transforming a country from a dictatorship to a free society. Provided that Iraq does that hard work, it will reap the rewards of becoming a functional, America-loving democracy in a region of dysfunctional, America-hating dictatorships.

For Mr. Kerry, Iraq is—or should be—an international potluck supper, with many countries bringing their best offerings to the table and everyone sharing the experience, splitting the costs and helping to clean up.

For Iraqis, to borrow the single word that comes up most frequently in conversation, Iraq is a prison in the purest sense: Almost everyone would leave if they possibly could. And why not? Even without the Al Qaeda–type terrorism, the place has become terrifying. Kidnappings have become a commonplace. Murder is committed with impunity. Corruption is rampant. Looting is a leading industry. Civil war is a serious possibility.

Incredibly, thanks to three decades of tireless effort on the part of Saddam Hussein, all of this does not necessarily rule out the possibility that for most Iraqis, most of the time, life is better after the American invasion than it was before. Even so, it is by no means possible at this point to care about the Iraqi people and crow about the American achievement.

Fortunately for Mr. Bush, he does not care about the Iraqi people. In fact, as he made clear in the debate, they are not even a variable in his thinking about Iraq. For anyone who sees Iraq as something other than a figment of the American political imagination, it wasn’t the smirking and the syntax-mangling that made a disgrace of his performance. It was the clinging. The President clung not merely to the rightness of his overall decision to invade Iraq, which he cannot avoid politically and perhaps even should not avoid morally. He clung, like a dying man to dear life, to every follicle on every hair on the head of the policy that has resulted from that decision—and boasted that he would keep on clinging, no matter how many Iraqis suffer for it. “The way to win this is to be steadfast and resolved and to follow through on the plan that I’ve just outlined,” said the President, who had just outlined—well, hinted at—a plan of doing the same thing, in the same way, in hopes of getting a different result.

So practiced at embodying the compassionate conservative, Mr. Bush could at least have taken a stab at playing the humble hawk: resolute, perhaps, but also clear in his understanding of what the Iraqis have been going through, and in his communication that this knowledge both pained and informed him. Instead, he seemed weirdly intent on selling himself as the Superglue President: a man who will stick to anything.

Judging from the polls taken in the days after the debate, only his base was buying. Among most other voters, Mr. Kerry emerged as the winner. Fair enough—but it is worth bearing in mind that Mr. Kerry was getting major points for being on this planet. While definitely a plus, this should not be confused with articulating an Iraq policy—at least not an Iraq policy that would be substantially different going forward than the policy that is careening along there now.

Actually, for purposes of the campaign, this should be O.K. with Mr. Kerry. After all, he is the challenger. If he sees no clear way out of the situation in Iraq, he is perfectly well within his rights to eviscerate the incumbent for having brought us there. That is what is so odd about Mr. Kerry’s rendering of his position. There is such a strong, clear argument with which he could damage the President on Iraq without damaging himself—but he refuses to make it, at least until after he has made the weak, murky argument that comes back to kick him every time.

Consider, for instance, what Mr. Kerry could say when his opponent, quite rightfully, forces him to face the fact that he voted for the resolution authorizing the President to use force against Iraq. He could say: “Yes, Mr. President, as you never tire of pointing out, I did vote for you to have that authority. But I didn’t vote for you to toss Iraq into such chaos that if there were weapons of mass destruction, or records of weapons of mass destruction, they could very well have been stolen or destroyed any day of the last 80-odd weeks. I didn’t vote for you to make great big sieves of Iraq’s borders with Iran and Syria. I didn’t vote for you to send troops to guard almost nothing but the oil ministry. I didn’t vote for you to sponsor a commercial shut-out of countries that opposed the invasion so that they’d have no more stake in the peace than they had in the war. I didn’t vote for you to go into a country in which almost everyone with a job was a member of the Baath Party and adopt a policy of ‘fire Baathist first, ask questions later’—thus destroying what civil institutions the Iraqis had and replacing them with nothing … not to mention stripping those institutions of experience and exposing them to the red-hot wrath of those cut loose. I didn’t vote for you to stack the late, not-so-great Coalition Provisional Authority with political employees chosen—with some seriously talented exceptions—more for their ideological obeisance than for their expertise. I didn’t vote for you to lay siege to Falluja, then un-lay it, then sort of lay siege again, then un-lay it … all the while congratulating yourself for never wavering. I could go on, but to sum up: In all honesty, in your shoes, reading the same intelligence that was available to us both, I may or may not have ended up invading Iraq at some point in the general time frame that you did. But mark my words: I would not have made the mess that you have.”

Mr. Kerry did make some of these assertions, in bits and pieces here and there. But he could fashion them all into one smooth, sharp blade and use it to cut clean through the tie that binds his position on the war to Mr. Bush’s. Instead, he keeps reaching for the boomerang.

“We also have to be smart, Jim,” said Mr. Kerry to moderator Jim Lehrer, leading one to expect him to launch into a foolproof attack on the gobsmackingly unsmart aspects of the occupation. But no: “And ‘smart’ means not diverting your attention from the real war on terror in Afghanistan against Osama bin Laden and taking it off to Iraq.”

Say again?

In that case, “smart” should have meant that Mr. Kerry voted against Mr. Bush in the Senate, and railed against him in public. He did not do that. Mr. Kerry’s supporters like to believe that the Republicans are unfair and oversimplistic to whack the Senator on this, and that any voter who studies Mr. Kerry’s position in its entirety will get it. Well, I have studied his position in its entirety, and I don’t get it.

I also don’t get how, given where we now find ourselves, his solutions for Iraq will make any real difference in Iraq. Granted, the simple fact of not being Bush should give him some mileage in some quarters. And a change in leadership could encourage rather than discourage a general freshness of approach, which could be a good thing. On a policy level, though, there isn’t much there in the way of ideas that ain’t already there.

At the debate, it broke down to what Mr. Bush would call a multipronged strategy: be nice to other countries; buy more armored vehicles; and train the Iraqis to defend themselves.

To take the last one first: Oh, dear. Asserting that the key is to get Iraqis to defend their own country has become this race’s rhetorical equivalent of asserting that children are America’s future. The President kept mentioning that some 100,000 new security-force members had been trained and that some 200,000 would be trained by such-and-such a point. I didn’t pay much attention to the numbers, because the numbers don’t matter nearly as much as what they are supposed to be comprised of—and I’m not even talking about the fact that these numbers are comprised, in part, by police officers, some of them barely trained, as well as actual soldiers. But does that 100,000 include or exclude the Iraqi police in the south who defected en masse during the Muktada al-Sadr uprising last April? Does it include or exclude the police in Falluja, who were, as of July, taking orders from the resistance; or those in Baghdad, who were quite openly bargaining to investigate or not investigate their loved ones’ kidnappings? Does it include or exclude the policeman I interviewed over the summer, who told me that he was collecting his salary but, in light of the warning sprays of bullets at his house night after night, had no intention of doing his job?

Such questions are not meant to denigrate those Iraqi recruits who are doing their best and doing it bravely, nor to put down the people who are trying to train them. But both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are asking the American people to put a lot of stock in the idea that in just a few short months, these guys will have everything under control so that we can get outta there. That idea is dubious at best.

As for Mr. Kerry’s observation that some 10,000 of the military’s 12,000 Humvees are not even armored, it was just a quick, relatively unobjectionable couple of lines in a long debate. But it is the kind of thing that sounds simple, but isn’t, and therefore is the kind of thing that one wishes a candidate of substance would avoid. That armor would be expensive—expensive enough, perhaps, to divert some dollars from those American schools and firehouses the Senator was talking about. Yet that armor wouldn’t protect against improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, and it certainly wouldn’t contribute anything in the way of rebuilding Iraq. Moreover, of all the things that can be said about the Bush administration’s handling of the occupation, inadequate attention to force protection is not in the top 300.

This leaves Mr. Kerry’s pièce de résistance, which is really a trompe l’oeil: internationalize the problem. Certainly there is nothing wrong with Mr. Kerry’s arguing that the Bush administration’s predeliction for antagonizing other countries on the Iraq question, as on myriad others, should be counted as a mark against the President. Nor is he wrong to argue that a bungled war is a firing offense, period. That said, however, nothing that has happened since the invasion should be allowed to change the perception of what was happening in the war debate before the invasion. There is very little reason to believe that with a few more inspections, or a greater show of deference from the Americans, the nations who stayed out ever would have gotten in. There are those, like Howard Dean, for whom that would have meant no war—but given his vote, Mr. Kerry cannot be counted among them.

Mr. Kerry is dead right to criticize the administration for missing post-invasion opportunity after post-invasion opportunity to share the wealth and the burden of the new Iraq. In the privacy of his own intellect, however, he has got to be dead stumped as to what he might do about it upon taking office in January 2005. What would he have to say to get any leader not currently entrenched to get himself entrenched? “Hey, Jacques, give me a thousand troops, I’ll give you Hawaii”?

At this point, short of bringing the troops home, there is not very much that Mr. Kerry could do that Mr. Bush is not trying to do already. He is willing to admit that every day, in every way, things are not getting better and better. And he is willing to try and get some help, although he’ll probably fail. So far, that’s all.

Then again, if reality is the yardstick here, what more can he do? There was another point that the debate made clear, and that the candidates had in common: It was the idea that the next American President, whomever he turns out to be, will have an enormous, defining impact on what happens next in Iraq. The more time I spent there, the less I could believe that. The next American President will have an enormous impact on the American occupation, but that doesn’t tell the half of it. For good and ill, the American-led invasion unleashed a host of political, social and cultural forces in and around Iraq. Those forces are not waiting until Nov. 3 to see whether or not they should play out.

That’s the politically tricky thing about real places full of real people: They tend to have a life of their own.