The Kerry Quandary

At last, a smart, informed debate about Iraq. Not from the two Skull and Boneheads running for President. In your dreams. Rather, there’s James Fallows’ impressively reported piece in The Atlantic, “Bush’s Lost Year,” and Gregg Easterbrook’s rapid response, a thought-provoking critique of Mr. Fallows in The New Republic Online for Sept. 13: “Freedom Core.”

If John Kerry were smart, he wouldn’t listen to his army of advisors. He’d run his entire campaign on distilling and communicating the substance and implications of one magazine article: Mr. Fallows’ 10,000-word piece on where the War on Terror went wrong after Afghanistan, the “Lost Year” and how it was lost. It’s written from the position of someone who thinks the War on Terror is worth fighting and winning, but has gone perhaps irreparably awry because of failed planning for, and in, Iraq. If John Kerry were smart, he’d make his whole campaign about holding George Bush accountable for something more than an admitted “miscalculation”—for a series of tragic mistakes. (Indeed, Mr. Kerry’s speech at N.Y.U. this week sounded like it had been lifted from Mr. Fallows’ piece.)

O.K., “if John Kerry were smart”: big assumption. Is this guy the best Skull and Bones—and Yale itself—can give us? If John Kerry were smart …. This is someone who seems to have taken his most recent dumb campaign moves from Michael Moore: For Mr. Kerry, “Bush’s lost year” was not, as Mr. Fallows argues, 2002, when the fate of the War on Terror was at stake. No, much more important to Mr. Kerry and his many savvy strategists is 1972, when Mr. Bush may have failed to show up for a physical.

Someone with contacts among Mr. Kerry’s marketing retainers has suggested to me that he’s been taking his ad and stump-speech themes from focus groups with the most fever-addled people in his “base,” people whose main source of geopolitical wisdom is Fahrenheit 9/11: Yeah, let’s bash Cheney about Halliburton! That’s a surefire election winner.

Memo to Kerry: “Bush’s lost year” is loosely the time between the initial consolidation of control of Afghanistan and the apparent loss of control in Iraq. The accumulation of facts that Mr. Fallows deploys, the number of people he’s spoken to, the despair one takes away, is damning enough.

But what makes it even more haunting—and makes Mr. Easterbrook’s critique important—is the sense one gets that it didn’t have to be that way. I say this as someone who wrote pessimistically, on the eve of the Iraq invasion, that I believed, “war or no war, things will get worse”—but also as one who hoped, once the war had begun, that I’d be proven wrong. I’m not a sucker for optimism, although I guess I’m a sucker for lost causes like replacing fascist police states with states that don’t shred, torture, gas and slaughter dissidents and ethnic minorities.

One can’t deny that a mass murderer was removed from power, and there was an idea—perhaps too noble and too impractical—behind it all: “democracy promotion.”

It’s the idea Mr. Easterbrook defends in his critique of Mr. Fallows: the belief that the way to fight terror at its roots is to promote the spread of democracy in the places that breed terrorists. While I didn’t have much hope for its success, I always felt that those who disdained it were subtly condescending, even racist, about Arabs and Muslims—they “weren’t ready for democracy” or they “couldn’t handle democracy.”

In his critique of Fahrenheit 9/11 in The New Yorker, Louis Menand, while disdainful of the “awful Bush administration,” made this important point: that Michael Moore–type analyses of Mr. Bush and the war were missing something important when they tried to blame everything the Bush administration did on venal, hidden motives—that it was a war for oil, for Halliburton, for Daddy, or for the Jews, or for a pipeline in Afghanistan. Instead, Mr. Menand suggested, there was an idea behind the decisions—”democracy promotion”— and if you’re going contend with the decisions, you need to contend with the animating idea.

What Mr. Fallows’ piece suggests in grim detail: that the administration’s underestimation of the number of troops to administer the country after “victory,” as well as the underestimation of the costs of the task in Iraq and the maladministration of the occupation there, may have fatally delegitimized that idea. Not because, in my view, it was intrinsically, metaphysically flawed, but because they failed to give it a chance to work.

Mr. Fallows himself doesn’t necessarily suggest he believes it would have worked anyway, but Mr. Easterbrook argues that it was worth trying and that Mr. Fallows ignores the collateral achievements of the Iraq invasion: the closing of the Libyan and Pakistani nuclear-arms bazaar which could have allowed Saddam to buy off-the-shelf nuclear capacity with the oil-for-food money he stole from starving Iraqi children. And (here I’m not sure I agree) the “flytrap” idea, that the “insurgency” in Iraq will draw all the world’s terrorists into a trap in the Sunni triangle.

But pessimists like myself believe that “Bush’s lost year” may have fatally sabotaged not just “democracy promotion” but any kind of human intervention, in places like Darfur for instance, where genocide is going on right now, and all the U.N. will do is threaten possible oil sanctions against the Sudanese while allowing the slaughter to continue—500,000 or so dead already, and 1.4 million driven from their homes and threatened with starvation. Indeed, it was the experience of attending a small, underreported demonstration against the Darfur genocide last week that made the Fallows account of “Bush’s Lost Year” seem all the more tragic to me.

Mr. Fallows wisely avoids characterological speculations about how Bush could allow things to go so wrong—but let me venture one here: that one of Bush’s characterological strengths became his weakness. I’m thinking of Isaiah Berlin’s famous comparison (drawn from Tolstoy) of “the hedgehog and the fox”: the hedgehog knows one big thing, the fox knows many small things. Berlin used the hedgehog/fox dichotomy to divide up the two kinds of figures who make history and books, and it’s been applied to political figures such as Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry before, notably by Chris Matthews. But I would like to add another animal to the mix: the rat.

Mr. Bush is a hedgehog. He had one big idea: that after Sept. 11, we were at war, and the war could only be won by changing the nature of the regimes that supported terrorism from police states and theocracies to democracies. Not only did he have one big idea, but it was a noble idea, and I think his stubbornness about it was a good thing. But stubbornness is not always a good thing, especially when things start to go bad. The hedgehog doesn’t have another idea to fall back on; the hedgehog can’t adjust, it can just blindly “stay the course.” The hedgehog does not make midcourse corrections.

It’s not even clear that Mr. Kerry is a fox, in Isaiah Berlin’s sense of the word; it’s not clear he can keep his mind focused on small details, little details like whether he spent a life-changing, politically transformative Christmas in Cambodia, whether or not he’s Irish (a fiction he maintained for many years), and whether or not his first impulse was to volunteer for service in Vietnam. I note that Nicholas Kristof, in his Sept. 18, column on Kerry fact and fiction about Vietnam, gave credence to the important, underexamined challenge to the Kerry “reporting for duty” myth that I wrote about in my Sept. 13 column: that Mr. Kerry did not step up right away to volunteer for Vietnam duty, as his biographies and his own Web site have it—but rather, that he first tried to escape the war altogether by seeking a deferment from the draft to “study in Paris” and only volunteered—for what looked like non-combat duty—when his draft board denied him the deferment. As significant an omission from his biography as was the truth about “Christmas in Cambodia.”

The only hope for Mr. Kerry is that the disaster his campaign has become will bring back the vicious rodent I see trapped inside, the trapped rat who will do anything to win. Will do anything to win the War on Terror (he just doesn’t want to tell the leftists in his base that he’s for it). That he will do anything not just to win the Presidency, but to make sure the Presidency will not turn into another “tour of duty” in another Vietnam.

Somehow I sense that Mr. Kerry has learned the lesson embedded in the words of his generation’s sage, in a song about being trapped in a nightmare: “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.”

Here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price

You have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.

What is the price we’ll pay to avoid going through Vietnam, in all its murderous tragedy, twice? “History … is the nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” said Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Vietnam is the nightmare we’re trying to escape from going through twice. Vietnam is the nightmare I sense the rat in John Kerry just will not allow us to go through twice: He will either win it or pay the price to escape the nightmare of going through it twice.

I just have this sense that beneath the Brahmin wind-surfer surface of Mr. Kerry, there lurks neither hedgehog nor fox, but a snarling, yellow-toothed rodent. In his past campaigns, Mr. Kerry has been compared to a racehorse, a “real closer,” but I think a trapped rat is the better analogy. And I have this sense that if Mr. Kerry could begin to focus his inner rodent on Al Qaeda and the situation in Iraq, the rat might get more results than the Hedgehog in Chief who can’t change course.

So far, the only rat-like lines we’ve heard from the Kerry campaign have come from his supposedly mild-mannered running mate, John Edwards, who—both at the convention and just recently on the stump—has snarled: “We will have one clear, unmistakable message for Al Qaeda …. We will destroy you” (convention) and “When John Kerry is President of the United States, we will find out Al Qaeda where they are and crush them” (Sept. 19). If John Kerry wants to win, he’s got to convince us that he can focus his inner rat on Al Qaeda, not just on George Bush.

Of course, Al Qaeda and Iraq are not the same thing. Personally, I think the strategy that holds the most promise for salvaging something from Iraq is the one outlined by former Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith in the May 13, 2004, New York Review of Books, one that reflects the reality on the ground that things are going relatively well in two-thirds of the country: Give autonomy to the Kurds in the North, give autonomy to the Shia in the South, and isolate the Sunni triangle if it can’t be pacified. (After all, it never really was a united country so much as a British imperial fiction forcing disparate peoples into perpetual conflict.)

But does Mr. Kerry have the rodent-like potential to make things work? I must admit the thing that made me think John Kerry does have rodent potential was my brief appearance on The O’Reilly Factor.

Mr. O’Reilly had me on to discuss my Sept. 13 column on Mr. Kerry and Vietnam. I’d written about my dismay as a Vietnam war opponent that Mr. Kerry’s convention had tried to present the war that he once denounced for atrocities and war crimes as, in hindsight, a brave and noble venture with a sainted “band of brothers.” I think Mr. O’Reilly wanted me on in the hope that I’d do some Kerry bashing.

But I tried to stick with the point I’d made in the column: that Mr. Kerry’s incoherence on the issue was a symptom of a national failure to come to terms with what went wrong with Vietnam and what lessons we should have learned by now.

Anyway, I sensed Mr. O’Reilly was not very happy with what he was getting from me, and we got into a convoluted discussion in which, at one point, I managed to get Mr. O’Reilly to defend John Kerry. I’d said that I didn’t think the base of Mr. Kerry’s Democratic Party wanted to take the War on Terror or the war in Iraq seriously. The Michael Moore wing of the party makes fun of Mr. Bush for not leaving the third-grade classroom after he’d been told of the Sept. 11 attacks. But at least he eventually got up and faced the situation, while much of Mr. Kerry’s base still hasn’t left kindergarten when it comes to taking the situation seriously. They still believe that if we were just a little nicer to them, the bad people would leave us alone.

Anyway, Mr. O’Reilly told me that no, this wasn’t true of John Kerry—that “I know John Kerry,” and he was confident that Mr. Kerry would fight fiercely and not let Iraq turn into Vietnam. Mr. O’Reilly had seen the rat in Kerry! And if Mr. O’Reilly saw it, attention must be paid.

Back to the hedgehog. What Mr. Fallows’ article leads one to believe is that Mr. Bush, alas, seems too wedded to his past strategy and his past mistakes to take a critical look at what’s being done in its name. To find out the price. To tell us the price. And if he wants us to pay it, if he thinks there’s a way to make it work, to make a serious case—beyond campaign-trail spin—for continuing to pay the price of escalating casualties.

When things started to go wrong, for whatever reason—whether it was because we “won” the war too quickly or failed to put in enough troops and logistics to win the peace—the administration stuck to its “Mission Accomplished” optimism, refusing to admit that a midcourse correction might be needed fast, and allowed considerations of the political costs (of more troops, for instance) to sabotage the whole mission. Hedgehog thinking turned a “miscalculation” into a tragedy.

And the victims of the tragedy—the delegitimization of intervention, even humanitarian intervention—are not just in Iraq. They are being slaughtered in immensely greater numbers every day in Darfur, in the ongoing Sudanese genocide.

I don’t know if you’ve been following events in the Sudan, but a Muslim government is slaughtering, starving and displacing millions of black Africans. Colin Powell recently called it genocide, but I doubt anything’s going to be done in time, and I can’t help thinking that, in part, that’s because the mistakes made in Iraq have undermined the case for any kind of intervention anywhere that might call for force. As one of the signs at the Darfur demonstration said: “LEARN FROM RWANDA.” But what has been learned? There was another, sadder sign at the demonstration that said: “Thank you, President Bush, for liberating 45 million people in Afghanistan and Iraq,” and expressed the hope—likely doomed now—that Mr. Bush would intervene to save the victims of Sudan.

The demonstration for Darfur was small; it hadn’t been covered in the press ahead of time (I only learned about it from the site, which has been commendably diligent in covering developments there). Not many people showed up; not many media showed up. It didn’t show up on the radar. Only a couple of hundred people, maybe, across from the U.N. Plaza. (Part of my faith in the Left was restored by the presence of Gloria Steinem as a speaker and Kurt Vonnegut as a rally participant, wearing the green ribbon meant to remember those facing extinction. But, truly, much of the Left and most of the media is still in the third-grade classroom for this one, too. (See The Columbia Journalism Review story “Hiding Death in Darfur: Why the Press WasÊLate,” online at

Go to the Web site if you want to keep up with Darfur information—but believe me, it’s bleak, and it doesn’t look like anybody will get around to doing anything about it until it surpasses Rwanda (and maybe not even then).

Genocide, it seems to me, is the recurrent challenge of our age. (Ain’t human nature grand?) I’d always thought the Left should be at the forefront of those wishing to get rid of Saddam, not because of weapons of any particular kind, but because he was already guilty of near-genocidal attacks on ethnic minorities using poison gas.

There is genocide, and there is mass murder (as in the Beslan schoolhouse), and there is terror. The smart thing that John Kerry can do is take a position more hawkish on Al Qaeda than George Bush during the campaign. For one thing, it will diminish the chances that Al Qaeda or others will think a Madrid-like attack before the election will succeed in making us “nicer.”

More likely, in his new “focus on Iraq,” Mr. Kerry will be as vague and dishonest as Richard Nixon was about Vietnam in 1968. Four-point plans can be as vague and misleading as no-point plans. (One of the things I most resent about Mr. Kerry is that he’s given “nuance” a bad name.) In a way though, I don’t blame him: I secretly suspect that he’s taken five (or is it eight?) different positions on Iraq to “preserve his options.” Whatever policy he finally follows will likely be consistent with something he said in the campaign.

I have no real confidence that Mr. Kerry, or anyone else, can make things better, whatever they do. As I’ve written here before, I have a tragic sense of history: I don’t think all problems can be solved with good will the way we’re taught to believe. History teaches otherwise, and I think that Kerry or no Kerry, things will get worse in the larger sense, because human nature’s heart of darkness always seems to trump its better instincts.

But if I have no confidence in Mr. Kerry’s future, I think the situation argues for a no-confidence vote on Mr. Bush’s recent past. Lincoln fired his generals because they were losing a just war. And if you believe in “democracy promotion,” well, one essential element of democracy is holding leaders accountable. Mr. Bush may have been fighting a just war, but I think Mr. Fallows has made the case that Mr. Bush’s strategic and tactical failures risk losing the larger war—if it hasn’t already been lost. It’s time to hold him accountable.

If I were voting on domestic issues alone, I’d vote for Ralph Nader, because I’ve always admired his lonely devotion to fighting the corrupt nexus of money and power in American politics—the corrupt nexus that both Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry are servants of. But when it comes to the situation we face now, we may need someone self-interested, conniving and, yes, rat-like to find the best way out of this maze—to make it work or get out. The Kerry Quandary