Developments in Iraq Present Opportunities for Kerry and Bush

Posted May 12, 2004 at 4:02pm

Crises have a way of providing opportunities as well as headaches for politicians. The current controversy over the abuse of prisoners in U.S. custody in Iraq is no exception. [IMGCAP(1)]

This is a developing story, and it may well look much different 24 hours from now than it did 24 hours ago, especially after Iraqi terrorists decapitated an American contractor in retribution for the U.S. mistreatment of Iraqis.

Still, the outrageous behavior of guards and interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison has done what our adversaries could not — discredit not only U.S. policy but also American values and intentions.

Even many supporters of President Bush’s Iraq policy are repulsed by the revelations of U.S. abuse, and that probably explains why more Americans now think the country is heading on “the wrong track.” So while Bush voters haven’t yet turned into supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), even the strongest backers of the president’s Iraq policy now have a hard time arguing the outlook in Iraq is promising.

The administration holds out the June 30 transfer of power to a local authority as a sign of progress. But it is difficult to believe things will improve measurably in Iraq in the next few months. Instead, U.S. military personnel — and the private contractors who are helping to rebuild the country — are sure to remain targets for anti-American and anti-democratic forces.

The administration can talk about “progress” and about winning the war militarily, but to most Americans it looks as if the United States is, at best, treading water in Iraq. And that is the biggest problem for Bush.

So far, a majority of Americans have told pollsters they support the president’s Iraq policy, and they express greater confidence in his leadership on the issue than on Kerry’s. But will Bush really want five months more of this before facing voters?

The greatest political danger facing the president is that voters, sometime in October, conclude that there is no end in sight to the Iraqi stalemate and that the administration has no realistic plan for the future. That would set up a classic “time for a change” scenario.

The Iraqi prisoners’ scandal does give the president an opportunity to signal some changes in policy — a “pivot,” in the words of one smart Republican observer — without going so far as to shift policy completely.

I realize that any shift can be portrayed as a defeat or reversal, and the president and his supporters are in no mood to acknowledge an error in policy. They need not. But they can still take steps that would serve U.S. military and diplomatic interests and enhance the president’s own standing.

Two obvious pivots come to mind. First and most obviously, Bush could replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Some high-level military or political official almost certainly must lose his or her job if the United States has any hope of convincing onlookers that we are truly horrified by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners. Even with the president’s vote of support, Rumsfeld is surely a prime prospect.

While in many ways this isn’t an ideal time to change Defense secretaries, Rumsfeld could submit his resignation, citing the scandal, and exit his office without ever admitting fundamental errors in policy. The president would then have an opportunity to quiet critics, either by appointing someone with considerable international stature or by selecting a Democrat who supports the war.

Second, the scandal provides an opportunity for the president, if he so chooses, to invite an international presence into Iraq, possibly in a role overseeing the treatment of detainees.

Some who have opposed the United States ceding authority to an international organization certainly would regard this as back-pedaling by the administration. But I am not suggesting the United States yield political or military control of the war effort. Rather, I suspect that any sign of new international presence, no matter how restricted, might be seen as a sign of progress in Iraq, and that kind of pivot might enhance the president’s standing and increase the chances of success in Iraq.

These are just a couple of ideas that suggest opportunities for a presidential response to the current abuse scandal. But whatever he decides, my main point is that Mr. Bush should consider the scandal as an opportunity, not merely a threat to be survived.

The current scandal also gives Kerry an opportunity to improve his positioning — again, to pivot — for the presidential contest, though not necessarily as some Democrats would assume. Kerry needs to stop dwelling on the economy and focus on what people increasingly care about: Iraq.

The strategy is simple. Kerry plainly does not need to spend the next six months convincing voters that Bush should not be re-elected. They either have or will come to the conclusion on their own or they won’t.

Instead, Kerry needs to convince voters that he is, to quote one observer, an “acceptable receptacle” for the anti-Bush vote. That means the Senator ought to take this opportunity to show voters he can be presidential — not by attacking Bush but by demonstrating his competence to deal with international crises and by conveying a down-to-earth quality that he so far has failed to display.

Kerry may not be able to beat Bush, but the president could very well lose to Kerry if and when voters decide they want change.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.