Kerry Catches On: It’s War, Stupid! Bushies Brutal

Tomorrow the big day comes: John F. Kerry and George W. Bush toe-to-toe in the first Presidential debate, which really isn’t.

A debate, that is.

Ninety nationally televised minutes of alternating stump-speech snippets is what the encounter actually amounts to, with style (maybe even height) as important as content.

So Lincoln-Douglas this is not. But then neither are the participants.

Whatever you call it, the showdown’s crucial—especially to Mr. Kerry, for reasons too dreary to explicate. Nearly one in three tell pollsters that evenings like Thursday help decide their choice (nine in 10 probably fibbing); the topics to be addressed —foreign policy and homeland security—couldn’t be more timely. And the stakes? Ask Al Gore: He seemed lead-pipe till his initial 90 sigh-filled minutes.

Predictions as to outcome, your correspondent shall eschew. You’ve doubtless had your fill, even if yours truly had a guess, which he doesn’t. One thing’s sure: As reality show, the production will be hard to beat. Because we’re not talking fake blood here, but the kind flowing daily in Iraq.

That’s what tomorrow night will be about, and that’s what what follows is about. With a little twist—to wit, how a war-hero U.S. Senator came to be portrayed as the favorite of the guys with long knives and AK-47’s.

The back story’s as basic as everything that surrounds it is messy. Commencing with a major address at New York University two weeks ago, John Kerry began laying into Mr. Bush for Iraq, which until that moment had been No. 7 on his list of seven electoral priorities. The war’s worsening was one reason for the switch, a new crew of advisors and a look at the polls two possible others. In any event, once embarked, Mr. Kerry piled on the coals, saying that the President had “misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking,” in the process leaving the world “a more dangerous place for America and Americans.”

He proceeded in that vein onto the Sept. 20 edition of the David Letterman show, where Mr. Kerry responded to Dave’s key question—”If you had been elected President in 2000 … would we be in Iraq now?”—thus: “No.”

Full stop, next question.

More than a few lamented the non-issuance of such a response many moons before. But, however 11th hour, Mr. Kerry had finally done it—with no ifs, ands, buts or nuances in between.

The shock was transforming, not least for Mr. Kerry, whose words got grittier as the days wore on: “Stubborn incompetence” … “Colossal failures of judgment” … “Wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” More and more, he was sounding like the young lieutenant who came back from Vietnam to demand, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

By now, even Republicans could smell fire crackling, and—showing just how big the conflagration sniffed—were saying so. “When we went in there, I thought we would build American-style democracy,” House Appropriations Committee chairman Jim Kolbe quoted an administration official telling him. “Hell, I’d be happy with Romanian-style democracy now.”

But Dubya stayed bouncy. The National Intelligence Estimate of Iraq’s bleak, bleaker and bleakest prospects? “Just guessing,” he said. The right-track/wrong-track poll results for Iraq? Better than the U.S.A.’s, he joked. When Iraqi interim prime minister Allawi dropped by to say thanks, he was bright as the sun that bathed their Rose Garden press conference. “On television sets around the world we see acts of violence, yet in most of Iraq, children are about to go back to school, parents are going back to work and new business are being opened,” the President proclaimed. Yes, he conceded, there were challenges, but America would overcome them. “Democracy in Iraq will put down permanent roots, and terrorists will suffer dramatic defeat,” he said. But you-know-who should stop criticizing him: “You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed messages,” he said, getting his squint. His guest dutifully agreed: “When political leaders sound the sirens of defeatism in the face of terrorism, it only encourages more violence.”

The assessment of the person they were talking about: “The President is living in a fantasy world of spin.”

It would be tidy to report that that’s the moment things turned nasty; truth is, Mr. Kerry’s prompt wasn’t required. Talk had been getting ugly since early this month, when Vice President Dick Cheney told a Des Moines, Iowa, crowd, “If we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, and that we’ll be hit in a way that is devastating to the United States.”

Now, it got uglier.

Terrorists “are going to throw everything they can between now and the election to try and elect Kerry,” said Senate Judiciary chairman Orrin Hatch, according to The Washington Post.

“I don’t have data or information to tell me one thing or another, [but] I would think they would be more apt to go [for] somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something rather than respond with troops,” said House Speaker Dennis Hastert. By that tangle, did he mean Al Qaeda would be better off with Mr. Kerry? Answered the second in line to Presidential succession: “That’s my opinion, yes.”

Mr. Bush provided the capper: “Incredibly,” he told a rally in Bangor, Me. (a state all of a sudden tilting his way), “this week my opponent said he would prefer the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein to the situation in Iraq today.” Great line, no truth.

His fans in the press filled in the chinks. Sample compiled by Kerry-friendly Media Matters for America:

“Every terrorist is hoping John Kerry gets elected”—Oliver North.

“Of course, they’d like to see Kerry win, because it means Bush would get kicked out of the White House”—John Gibson.

“For all I know,” the growing insurgency in Iraq was “designed … to help elect John Kerry”—Morton Kondracke.

And the usual from Ann Coulter: John Kerry “will improve the economy in the emergency services and body-bag industry.”

But it wasn’t just the Foxies. On “America’s Most Trusted Source for News,” CNN, senior political analyst William Schneider—former Richard Perle writing partner and resident fellow at the neocon refuge the American Enterprise Institute—was opining: “I can guarantee you, they don’t like George Bush. Do they think there’s a difference? I think Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda network—who I am certain follow American politics—look at the messages coming out on their tapes. They seem to follow politics very closely. They would very much like to defeat President Bush. But the question is, can they pull off the same trick that they pulled off in Spain?”

In other words: If you happen to get blown up between now and Election Day, thank John Kerry.

Two questions emerge: Who’s right? Why the rhetoric?

Statistics answer the first.

Take bad-guy strength. Last June, Gen. John Abizaid, chief of the U.S. Central Command, put it at 5,000. Today, “senior officers” (none of whom wish to be identified, in the event they turn out to be General Abizaid himself) say it’s 20,000—a fourfold increase in as many months.

The “pouring in” of fighters across Iraq’s borders (Prime Minister Allawi’s phrase, pre-cheer-spreading in Washington), combined with the ongoing enlistment of the native-born, has swelled other figures. Like number of attacks. According to data compiled by Kroll Security International for the U.S. Agency for International Development (and revealed by The Washington Post on Sunday), they’re currently running at about 70 per day—versus 40 to 50 per day in the weeks before the interim government took over. (Compared to last winter and fall, attacks are up an even 100 percent.) “Very good and safe” Baghdad (as described by Mr. Allawi, following his address to Congress), has claimed a goodly share: Attacks there have been averaging 22 per day.

Casualties have also gone up, both among U.S. personnel (66 killed and more than 1,100 wounded in August, the bloodiest month since Mr. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished”) and Iraqis—whom no one bothered to count until five months ago. Since then, the Iraqi Health Ministry has logged 3,487 dead (328 of them women and children), 13,720 injured. And those numbers are on the woefully low side. Many Iraqi deaths go unreported, and there’s no information from three of the country’s 18 provinces, apparently because they’re too dangerous for anyone to get close to with a calculator.

The one increase that’s been disappointing is the number of fully trained Iraqi troops. Starting from a base of zero (an L. Paul Bremer boo-boo), there were to be 25,000 by now. Instead, they total 5,000. Or rather 4,999, since one of their commanders, Brig. Gen. Talib Abid Ghayib al-Lahibi, was arrested this week for “having associations with known insurgents.”

Allies, meanwhile, continue to dwindle, with the Brits the latest to look to the exits. Quoting military sources in Whitehall and Iraq, the London Observer reported last week that the 5,000-strong main U.K. combat force will diminish by roughly a third at the end of next month. The draw-down comes after sharply increased fighting in two of the formerly quiet southern provinces the Brits patrol. In the clashes, some units suffered more than one in three killed or wounded.

The financial side’s no brighter. Originally, the Bush administration put the war’s price at bargain basement—nearly all of it, Paul Wolfowitz promised, to be paid for by the sale of Iraqi oil. This hasn’t quite worked out. Courtesy of pipelines and pumping stations routinely blown up, oil production is now at Saddam overthrow levels. Meanwhile, the cost of the war now exceeds $200 billion, and is increasing at a $5-billion-per-month clip. To make do, the Pentagon has been forced to dip into its $25 billion contingency reserve, and $3 billion earmarked for reconstruction has been diverted to security purposes. Reconstruction itself proceeds at a crawl. Less than $1 billion of the $18 billion Congress appropriated a year and a half ago has been spent, producing an unemployment rate reckoned somewhere between 33 and 40 percent, which helps explain where all the terrorist recruits are coming from.

How long the expenditure of blood and treasure will go on, and with what result, nobody knows. But there are learned opinions.

For notable example: In the most comprehensive study yet of what’s actually happening in Iraq, the hawk-friendly Center for Strategic and International Studies reported this at the end of August: “In every sector we looked at, we saw backward movement in recent months.” Who commissioned the examination? Reports The New Republic: Donald Rumsfeld.

For another: Britain’s Royal Institute of International Affairs—frequent advisor to whomever resides at No. 10—has concluded that the “default scenario” for Iraq is as follows: “Antipathy to the U.S. presence grows, not so much in a unified Iraqi nationalist backlash, but rather in a segmented manner that could presage civil war if the U.S. cuts and runs. Even if U.S. forces try to hold out and prop up the central authority, it may still lose control.” Bottom line in either instance: “Violent and bloody.”

Others have views as well. Colin Powell: “Getting worse,” he said of the insurgency on Meet the Press on Sunday. Outgoing Marine commander Lt. Gen. James T. Conway: “We certainly increased the level of animosity that existed,” he said of the reputedly White House–ordered attack then retreat from Falluja. British ambassador to Italy Sir Ivor Roberts: “The best recruiting sergeant ever for Al Qaeda,” he said of Mr. Bush.

And the most up close and personal: Turkish journalist Zeynep Tugrul, released by Islamic militants after four days of torture and death threats. “Everybody is the resistance,” she told Susan Sachs of The Times. “Not terrorists, but not civilians really either. They used small kids to bring them water, and nobody treated them like children. They’d be with the men who were talking about cutting off heads, and the kids would be standing guard, like little men, so you became afraid of the children, too.”

The response from Washington has been two-track.

In Iraq, the military has effectively ceded large swaths of the Sunni triangle and other areas (some in the middle of Baghdad) to the insurgents, presumably in order to cut down vote-discouraging casualties. Saddam Hussein’s trial, which Mr. Allawi said would begin next month, has been put off till well after the election, apparently because someone remembered the unkind comments made about Mr. Bush during his first court appearance. The Pentagon has let it be known that the current year-plus Iraq tours—a source of fury for National Guard families of both registrations—is likely to be reduced, details to be announced after the election. (Ditto bruited plans to significantly increase National Guard and regular troop strength in Iraq.) To co-opt Mr. Kerry’s call for greater allied participation, Colin Powell has been trying to organize a NATO conference. (The French aren’t cooperating, coyly saying they’re too busy between now and the election.) In demonstration of democracy’s march, plans are moving full-steam for Iraqi elections in January—though few think they’ll actually occur, including the U.N., whose judgment trumps, since it has the job of supervising them. In the event Iraqis do go to the polls and survive the trip, Time reports, a secret “finding” has tasked the C.I.A. with ensuring happy results. (Protests from the Hill have scaled back ambitions.)

As for still-missing-after-all-these-months Osama, Teresa Kerry, for one, says she “wouldn’t be surprised” if he turns up before Election Day.

At home, recent past will continue as prologue. Evidence from press accounts: The Tucson, Ariz., Fox News affiliate warning out-of-state college students that they’re committing a felony by registering to vote. (The U.S. Supreme Court ruled it legal 25 years ago.) Announcement of increased F.B.I. surveillance and terrorist warnings, despite no direct intelligence of pending attack. Mass Republican mailings to Christian voters in Arkansas and West Virginia warning “liberals” will ban the Bible if Mr. Kerry’s elected. Postponement till after the election of F.D.A. regulations opposed by beef and feed industries increasing safeguards against mad-cow disease. Statement by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that Iraqi terrorists “are trying to influence the election against President Bush.” Bush spokesman Steve Schmidt branding Kerry criticism of Iraq policy “defeatist.” Television commercial financed by Republican group showing John Kerry, then images of Osama bin Laden, Mohammed Atta and World Trade Center ruins.

And Mr. Bush’s contribution tomorrow night?

His communications director, Nicolle Devenish, offered The Times a peek: “Someone who blinks when things get hard is not the right person to win the war on terror …. They are preaching retreat and defeat in the face of real challenges from an enemy bent on our destruction. I think that’s bad for the troops, it’s bad for our allies and it’s bad for our country.”

No President in modern times—including up-for-about-anything Richard Nixon—has made such a charge, whatever the war or election. But for George Bush and his kind, it’s S.O.P.

Because it works.

The proof is last week’s CBS poll, which, despite the flood of dismal news, found that 61 percent of registered voters had “a lot/some confidence” that Mr. Bush would make the “right decisions about Iraq,” while only 51 percent felt the same about John Kerry. That was a drop of 12 percent since August—when the White House began wondering which side he was on.

Whether the tactic continues with the same efficiency remains to be seen. The first clue’s tomorrow at 9 p.m., after Jim Lehrer leans into the camera and says, “Good evening and welcome to …. “

Until then, let us leave you with a quote cited by Jason Epstein in a New York Review of Books meditation on how things are. It’s what Hermann Goering told an interviewer during his trial at Nuremberg:

“People don’t want to go to war …. But, after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it’s always a simple matter to drag people along whether it’s a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship …. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leadership. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to greater danger. It works the same in any country.”

First Tuesday in November, we’ll know if he was right.