|JIM MACMILLAN / AP
U.S. soldiers in Samarra. The Bush administration and the Kerry campaign have both stressed the need to retake Sunni towns to allow Iraq's January poll to proceed
Bush's Iraq, Kerry's Iraq: More of the Same?
Despite their differences over the war, the President and his challenger offer the same plan for Iraq
TIME: Appointment in Samarra
Dispatch: Under Fire in Ramadi
Wednesday, Oct. 06, 2004
Historians studying the 2004 candidates' debates may be struck by the extent to which these campaign events became the kind of bare-knuckled exchanges on Iraq of a type unprecedented in the American public sphere until that point. Sure, the war had been exhaustively debated in the media over the previous two years, but there was a certain politesse to those debates, and any impulse towards combative questioning of administration officials by journalists was always going to be tempered by the industry requirement of maintaining access to the corridors of power.
When John Edwards on Tuesday turned to Vice President Cheney and said, "Mr. Vice President, you're still not being straight with the American people," the antiwar base of the Democratic Party thrilled at the spectacle of the administration "being held to account," as a DNC ad put it. And yet, for all Edwards' efforts to paint the invasion as a disastrous error that has created a burdensome mess for America, he couldn't really escape Vice President Cheney's jibe that the Kerry-Edwards recipe for fixing Iraq is essentially simply an echo of the administration's current efforts.
The campaign debate over Iraq covers three distinct issues: the decision to invade; the planning and conduct of the occupation, and its results; and the prescription for achieving a satisfactory result.
Necessary War or Strategic Blunder?
Vice President Cheney was more convincing than President Bush had been in making the case that an Iraq invasion became necessary after 9/11, but even he struggled to sustain the notion that Iraq was a necessary preemptive war to protect America's cities from a new mass-casualty horror. Iraq, he insisted, was "the most likely nexus between the terrorists and weapons of mass destruction," and Saddam's regime could therefore no longer be tolerated. But the evidence is against him: The administration's own arms inspectors have concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion, and even senior members of the Bush cabinet have walked away from claims that Saddam Hussein had links with al-Qaeda. Far from a nexus between the two, it appears Iraq's connection to both was tenuous.
Thus when Edwards repeated, almost word for word, Kerry's depiction of the administration allowing Osama bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora by "outsourcing" the job of catching him to local warlords, Cheney was left to retort that Kerry-Edwards talk about terrorists, but aren't willing to confront "state sponsors of terrorism." This dispute refers to some basic differences over how to understand the al-Qaeda phenomenon: The Bush administration accuses critics like Kerry and Edwards of seeking to treat al-Qaeda terrorism as a problem of criminal deviance rather than a strategic challenge. But they have been accused, in turn, of failing to grasp the changed reality of a post-Cold War world in which terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda operate independently of state sponsorship. Indeed, the assumption of many administration hawks was precisely that a grouping such as Bin Laden's could not be capable of becoming a sustained menace to the U.S. unless it had the backing of a state machinery, and they believed Iraq was the most likely suspect.
The administration's fixation on "state-sponsorship" was echoed in Cheney's suggestion that the rate of attacks by Palestinian suicide bombers had declined because the U.S. had put Saddam Husssein out of business. The Israeli leadership might take issue with that characterization, given that they attribute the fall-off in the rate of attacks to the security wall they've built in the West Bank, and the ongoing military offensive to kill commanders and operatives of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Aqsa Martyr's Brigade.
Politics and the War
Edwards was more vulnerable, of course, to the charge of shifting positions, and that his ticket was talking tougher on the campaign trail than their record supports. In particular, Cheney took the gap missed by President Bush when his challenger spoke of the depth and breadth of the Gulf War coalition, and Edwards and Kerry's insistence that while "Saddam had to be confronted," the Bush administration had gone about it the wrong way. Cheney simply pointed out that Kerry had voted against the Gulf War, raising the question of under what circumstances he'd have been willing to sanction force against Saddam. After all, he had demurred even in a case so clear-cut that military action to oust Iraq from Kuwait had been conducted under UN authorization.
Cheney also worked the consistency theme to charge that Kerry and Edwards adapted their positions along the way in response to the popularity of Howard Dean in the Democratic primaries a charge that may have wryly amused the Vermont governor whose 15 minutes of national fame had been devoted to pushing the Democratic Party to show more backbone in confronting the Bush administration over Iraq. The Vice President can certainly maintain a record feckless consistency on Iraq as Defense Secretary in 1991, he was the lone voice in the first Bush cabinet calling for U.S. troops to go all the way to Baghdad after ejecting the Iraqis from Kuwait. Then again, as Kerry noted in the first debate, many of the dire consequences of toppling Saddam that had been used as an argument by the President's father, and others, against Cheney, have, indeed, come to pass.
Cheney also stuck to a new GOP talking point by painting Kerry's assertion that he would take the U.S. to war only in circumstances that met a "universal standard" to charge that the Democrat was willing to put U.S. national security in the hands of foreign powers. This is a longstanding nationalist trope among Republican candidates remember Bob Dole's warning that he would "never put U.S. troops under the command of (then UN Secretary General) Boutros Boutros-Gali? but it put Edwards on the defensive, forcing him to promise that John Kerry would hunt down and kill terrorists before they could hurt America. (Would that it were that simple.)
Of Global Standards
But Cheney then negated his own demagoguery over Kerry's "universal
standard" when it came to discussing Iran: The reason the Bush administration was relying exclusively on diplomacy to address the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran, said the Vice President, was "because Iran has not yet, as Iraq did, violated 12 years of resolutions by the U.N. Security Council." But if the Security Council had been the determining factor, then Iraq would never have been invaded.
In slamming postwar planning, Kerry and Edwards can count not only on the wisdom of hindsight, but also on the corroborating testimony of many of those intimately involved in the process, and of many leading Republican foreign policy pooh-bahs. There weren't enough troops to secure Iraq; the State Department's exhaustive plans were trashed by zealous Pentagon ideologues suspicious of the "Arabists" at Foggy Bottom; the administration had been seduced by tall tales spun by ambitious exiles; they had radically overestimated the welcome they'd receive, and so on. Bush and Cheney's response to these charges has been to maintain that things are going well in Iraq despite the expected adversity the President's "hard work" refrain and to attack Kerry and Edwards as defeatists whose pessimism gives comfort to the enemy. That leaves the electorate with the simple choice of believing that Iraq is on track to a brighter future, or that Iraq is a deepening mess.
You Say Potato, I Say Potato
But for all the sharp distinction the campaigns draw over whether invading Iraq was a mistake or an obligation, over the postwar planning and over the current prognosis, when it comes to defining the next step there's remarkable unanimity even though the Kerry campaign likes to paint itself as the bearer of a "plan" that has somehow eluded the Bush administration, it's hard to disagree with Vice President Cheney's sneer that Kerry and Edwards have simply packaged the administration's current efforts as their own plan.
Edwards on Tuesday said he and Kerry would speed up training of Iraqi security forces, speed up reconstruction so that Iraqis see tangible benefits, take steps to ensure that the January elections are held on schedule, and bring in more allies as a result of the "credibility" of a new administration. But the Bush administration's own policy right now is to step up training of Iraqis, speed up reconstruction in ways that bring tangible benefits (particularly jobs) to more Iraqis, and the administration has launched new military offensives aimed at securing conditions for voting. The reason allied countries have stayed out of Iraq is not that they doubt President Bush's credibility; it's that they doubt the wisdom of getting involved in what they see as a quagmire, and that won't change with a new face in the White House. In other words, as much as Edwards dismissed the administration's plan for Iraq as "more of the same," the challengers have yet to clearly define how their own prescription for Iraq eludes that label.
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