Most experts think Iraq will be the major issue in the November 2 election because opinion polls show the public about evenly divided on whether we should have gone to war but uncertain about what to do now. A minority thinks we should simply pull out.
For George Bush the issue is clear: we will stay in Iraq "until the job is done." He doesn't say how long that may be. We should remember that U.S. troops have been in South Korea for 54 years defending it against North Korea. Helping to build a democratic Iraq should take less time, perhaps five years, and require fewer troops than currently deployed.
John Kerry, in his acceptance speech to the Democratic Party's convention in Boston, was vague on whether he would withdraw the troops: "I know what we have to do in Iraq," he asserted. "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers." Last week Kerry pledged, as president, to bring most of the troops homes within four years.
The Washington Post, in a July 30 editorial titled "Missed Opportunity," called the senator's acceptance speech "a disappointment." It charged that Kerry "elided the charged question of whether, as president, he would have gone to war in Iraq," and that he "offered not a word to celebrate the freeing of Afghans from the Taliban, or Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, and not a word about helping either nation toward democracy."
Kerry reassured Americans that he would be tough on dealing with terrorism and would strengthen, not cut, the military: "We need a strong military and we need strong alliances." He asserted that then "we will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose and we will win." Critics questioned whether Kerry, in light of his Senate voting record, would increase defense spending.
The thrust of the senator's argument against the Bush administration's handling of Iraq is that the war is costing Americans too much because Bush invaded the country without enough allies. The result: Americans are paying 90 percent of the costs of dealing with the insurgency and many Americans are being killed and wounded. Because Kerry voted to authorize the president to wage this war, he now finds it difficult to say whether he made a mistake.
President Bush can be criticized for not doing more to persuade the German, French. Canadian, and Turkish governments to join the coalition to make war on Iraq, as his father had done before the Gulf War in 1991. But John Kerry has not told us what inducements he would have offered to bring those allies aboard, assuming that he too would have followed through on using force to make Saddam Hussein comply with numerous U.N. resolutions
George Bush's national security team was probably right in 2002 that France and Germany would try to block any serious action on Iraq in the U.N. Security Council because they had large economic interests at stake. After Kerry declared in his Boston speech that "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security," one might conclude that he, like Bush, would have ignored France's threat to veto a U.S.-British resolution to invade Iraq. But Kerry is silent on that point, as he is on whether he thinks the war was a mistake.
As we move into the final months of this pivotal election season, several key points about the Iraq war should be kept in mind.
John Kerry has not stated how he would, as president, have conducted the war and occupation other than to say he would have persuaded key allies to join the coalition. If the French, Germans, and Spanish remain opposed to helping in Iraq, would a president Kerry withdraw the troops? That question will be put to him in the coming debates.
President Bush can be criticized for having taken the country to war on the basis of faulty intelligence, as well as for bungling the job of rebuilding Iraq. But he should not be blamed for arguing that Saddam was a threat to Persian Gulf countries, especially Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (as he proved in 1991). Kerry's complaint that the cost has been too high because we didn't have enough allies fails to answer this question: Was Saddam's regime a dangerous threat to the entire Middle East region?. That was the reason America went to war against Iraq in 1991.
Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich argued during the Democratic primaries that the United States should not have gone to war in Iraq because it has no vital interest there. But neither Kerry nor the Democratic Party is making that claim. What is at issue in the election is how soon we could expect John Kerry to withdraw U.S. forces if he is elected president. Most Democrats will not be pleased if he in fact takes four years to do that.
File last modified on Thursday, 12-AUG-2004 09:00 PM EST