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Does Kerry have Bush on Iraq?


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Reality Check

by Andrew Sullivan

 

 

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Only at TNR Online | Post date 09.21.04 E-mail this article

 

t some point, this election race will tighten again, and, against the odds, it seems to me that John Kerry has finally found a way to do it. It's Iraq: not the reasons for going to war, not the relationship between Iraq and the war on terror, not the absence of promised WMDs, but the incompetence of the occupation from the fall of Baghdad onwards. This has always been the president's weak and blind spot. And the soundbites offered up on television last night showed why. Kerry was heard lambasting an occupation that seems to most observers to be coming unglued. Bush was seen again criticizing Kerry's record of inconsistency on Iraq. Advantage Kerry. Why? Because Bush has all but given up on trying to argue that things in Iraq are going fine. So he has to attack Kerry's credibility to conduct any kind of war in the region. It sounds campaigny and political, while Kerry at least is talking about a burning issue in the news every day. So, if this pans out, the debate will hinge on Bush's record in Iraq versus Kerry's longtime record in the Senate and dithering over the two years. If that's the battle, Kerry will surely gain--especially if violence in Iraq continues to swell in the next few weeks.

 

One way you can discern someone's weakness in an argument is to listen to what he does not mention. For a very long time now, the president and vice-president and all their spokesmen have not exactly been speaking about the occupation of Iraq. Yes, they have talked about the resolve to go to war with Saddam; they have spoken of how much safer the world is without Saddam; they have spoken of the imperative to move toward democracy in that country. But they have barely acknowledged--until recently and in asides--that the occupation is in deep trouble. The same goes, with a few honorable exceptions, for the conservative intelligentsia. Check out National Review Online this past week, or The Weekly Standard. There's been barely a mention of the occupation's growing travails. Two telling exceptions were a piece by John Derbyshire predicting a quick exit from Iraq after the election and a trial balloon by Robert Novak along the same lines in his syndicated column.

 

But the reality is unavoidable: Large swathes of Iraq have been ceded to terrorist insurgents; the multinational force is deeply unpopular in all the surveys of the general population you can read; barely a fraction of reconstruction funds has been spent; military and civilian casualties continue to rise; parts of Baghdad are not secure; the chances of national elections in January look iffy in the extreme; the White House's own internal reports are full of gloom. None of this was discussed at the Republican National Convention, and you can understand why. But the extremely rosy picture of Iraq sketched by that convention could well become a liability if the facts on the ground begin to make the commander-in-chief seem culpably out of it at best, and deceptive at worst.

 

The key for Kerry, then, is not to make the argument that this president is evil or a liar, as the Michael Moore left has stupidly done. And it is not to revisit the arguments for and against war in the first place. That merely traps Kerry back in the tangled rhetorical knots he tied for himself. It is to make the argument that this president is out of touch and incompetent. It's Dukakis again--competence, not ideology--but this time, with a real record of incompetence to point to. Take two simple issues: the training of the Iraqi military and the disbursement of reconstruction aid--two essential components of any success in Iraq. Both are way behind schedule in a conflict in which time is not on our side. Kerry focused on this effectively yesterday:

 

Last February, Secretary Rumsfeld claimed that more than 210,000 Iraqis were in uniform. Two weeks ago, he admitted that claim was exaggerated by more than 50 percent. Iraq, he said, now has 95,000 trained security forces. But guess what? Neither number bears any relationship to the truth. For example, just 5,000 Iraqi soldiers have been fully trained, by the administration's own minimal standards. And of the 35,000 police now in uniform, not one has completed a 24-week field-training program. Is it any wonder that Iraqi security forces can't stop the insurgency or provide basic law and order?

 

That's a devastating indictment after a year and a half of occupation. The rebuilding issue is even more potent:

 

Last week, the administration admitted that its plan was a failure when it asked Congress for permission to radically revise spending priorities in Iraq. It took 17 months for them to understand that security is a priority; 17 months to figure out that boosting oil production is critical; 17 months to conclude that an Iraqi with a job is less likely to shoot at our soldiers. One year ago, the administration asked for and received $18 billion to help the Iraqis and relieve the conditions that contribute to the insurgency. Today, less than a $1 billion of those funds have actually been spent. I said at the time that we had to rethink our policies and set standards of accountability. Now we're paying the price.

 

Kerry has been faulted for not offering an obvious alternative. But yesterday's speech had a plan; it was just a reiteration of the same kind of approach that the president has spoken about. The difference is that Bush has had 17 months to get things right and he has failed. And the bitter truth is that we have no good options in Iraq any more. Our main advantages were the removal of Saddam, a swift transfer of authority, and loads of rebuilding funds. But within only a few months of insufficient policing, growing anarchy, and fitful attempts even to get the electricity back on, the window of opportunity to win hearts and minds was lost. Without a strong central authority, the country's ethnic and tribal divisions have reasserted themselves, and the chances of a coherent, consensual national government have receded. The influx of foreign fighters--enabled by our inability to seal the borders--has made matters worse. Our only hope now is a brutal retaking of the Sunni strongholds, some kind of electoral process, and a slow war of attrition against a widespread insurgency with a new Iraqi government, shielded from its own people by a security fortress. Perhaps reconstruction can proceed through the violence. Perhaps we can slowly turn this around with the help of an increasingly bewildered and traumatized Iraqi populace. But when terrorists can destroy oil pipelines at will, why should they not also target any American-funded civil projects as well? Without progress on the political and security front, no amount of bribery will make a new Iraq arise.

 

What Kerry has to do is simply remind people that this is the reality. Yes, he needs to say how he would guide the country through the dark days ahead; and he failed to give concrete ideas about how or whether to, say, reconquer Falluja. But politically speaking, the reality of our present quandary will be eloquent enough. To claims that he isn't fit for command, Kerry simply has to ask, "You think I could run a war worse than this one?" And to every counter-sally by Bush on Kerry's own record of inconsistency, Kerry should simply say, "Stop changing the subject."

 

In the first debate, Kerry should keep hammering on specifics: Why have we spent almost no reconstruction funds? Why are we relying on the National Guard to do the army's work? How able are we to respond to other national security threats with our current troop levels? What are you going to do about Falluja? Kerry has to wrest the subject of Iraq from the past and the abstract to the present and the concrete. The American people will listen. Because they know a problem when they see one; and they don't appreciate a president who refuses to see what's in front of him.

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When it comes to the undecides, I say yes. Right now most of these undecides are far from being on top of the issues and will just wing their decesion towards election day, so in that aspect it doesn't look to be getting better and all of a sudden(well since Carville joining) Kerry's grown a set towards the issue. I say he has him beat.

 

It's amazing how when you begin to set your feet on the ground with an issue and get tough with it, jeez... It might work. I'm glad the new advisors for The Kerry Campaign got that in because Cahill and Shrum certainly were not and we saw the outcome. In my eyes Kerry now has this momentum as the new swift boat ads and this whole rather thing, doesn't seem to have as much steam as it would have back in July and August.

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You know, this is the problem with the two party system. Here you've got two puppets made of the same material arguing about B.S. You know what'd be nice? A candidate who doesn't argue about moot points and does something for once. I understand, when you're running for President that now is the time to sell yourself, but both are in a position to actually do something, but instead they'd rather argue the same old rhetoric about spending, budget cuts, jobs, etc. We've heard it before and yet the country still continues on. It seems to me this country would run itself without a President.

 

I think it would be nice to have more options rather than see a throw of the dice between two lame-duck candidates. These days it's like voting for the lesser of the two evils. They need to hurry up and debate, though. I think the only way Kerry actually convinces me to vote for Bush is if he gets in front of the podium and appears to be a bigger idiot than Bush. If you can't outdebate Bush (and yes, Gore couldn't either) then what does that say about you as a candidate? Still, for my vote it's Kerry's election to lose as I can't see myself rewarding Bush for the job he's done while in office.

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You know, this is the problem with the two party system.? Here you've got two puppets made of the same material arguing about B.S.? You know what'd be nice?? A candidate who doesn't argue about moot points and does something for once.? I understand, when you're running for President that now is the time to sell yourself, but both are in a position to actually do something, but instead they'd rather argue the same old rhetoric about spending, budget cuts, jobs, etc.? We've heard it before and yet the country still continues on.? It seems to me this country would run itself without a President.

 

I think it would be nice to have more options rather than see a throw of the dice between two lame-duck candidates.? These days it's like voting for the lesser of the two evils.? 569325[/snapback]

 

I know what you mean, but even if you suddenly had some 3rd party "maverick" president elected, you'd still have the issue of whether congress would work with him at all... Congress would presumably still be overwhelmingly Dem & Repub, so they're likely not going to let some 3rd party guy overhaul the government and clean up the mess they've spent so many years making.

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