Kerry Still Hasn’t Made His Case on Iraq Strategy

Posted September 22, 2004 at 4:42pm

Democrat John Kerry’s sharpened attacks on President Bush’s Iraq policy will undoubtedly cheer his worried supporters and may even sway some fence-sitters. But he’s still left hanging several major questions about what he’d do in Iraq.

Kerry has finally answered the seminal question: Would he have waged war to topple Saddam Hussein? His answer, made clear only on the “Late Show” with David Letterman of all places, is “No.”

But he still insists that, knowing that Hussein possessed no weapons of mass destruction, he still would have voted to give Bush the authority to go to war. Hussein needed to be “held accountable,” he says.

But for what? If Hussein had no WMD and everyone knew it, surely very few in Congress would have supported threatening war.

Kerry — who voted against the 1991 Gulf War when Hussein invaded Kuwait and who was running for president in 2003 in a party that generally tilted against the war — almost certainly would have voted “No.” Why can’t he just say so? Undoubtedly, because it would look like another “flip flop.” But it doesn’t help his credibility to stick to an incoherent story.

Still, many of Kerry’s criticisms of Bush’s policy are on target. The ratcheting-up of his rhetoric also indicates that polls showing him trailing Bush have only made him determined to fight harder.

At New York University, he declared that Bush “misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking and he has made the achievement of our objective — a stable Iraq, secure within its borders, with a representative government — harder to achieve.”

Let’s parse that sentence in pieces. “Misled?” It’s become gospel among Democrats that Bush knowingly deceived the country into war — that he phonied up intelligence on WMD and connections with al Qaeda and concocted an “imminent threat” to the United States.

But the whole world, including France, and most members of the Senate and House Intelligence committees believed that Iraq had WMD. Indeed, some Democrats argued that it would be used against U.S. forces.

“Miscalculated?” Here, Kerry is on solid ground. Bush & Co. assumed that Iraqis would be cheered as liberators. They ignored State Department warnings of a probable insurgency.

They also dismissed Army estimates of the number of troops it would take to pacify the country. And they underestimated the cost of the war in lives and money.

Such things happen in war. But, as Kerry charges, Bush also has “mismanaged” the aftermath of the war. The United States failed to get Iraqis employed rebuilding their country. It didn’t adequately guard the country’s infrastructure. It has been slow to spend appropriated funds. It has exaggerated progress in training Iraqi security forces.

Bush’s Iraq performance led one smart Republican I know to say, “There’s no question in my mind that Bush deserves to be fired. But would you hire Kerry to replace him? There’s no way I’d do that.”

Indeed, Kerry does not inspire confidence as a replacement manager of the Iraq enterprise. For one thing, his strategic aim remains unclear. He says that his purpose is to “succeed” and that his “objective” is a stable Iraq.

But he also has established what amounts to a deadline for beginning U.S. troop withdrawals (six months) and for total U.S. withdrawal (four years). There’s a distinct flavor of “Aikenism” about his pronouncements.

During the depths of the Vietnam War in 1966, Sen. George Aiken (R-Vt.) famously advised that the United States “declare victory and withdraw” whether the mission was accomplished or not.

It would be a tragedy — for the United States, the Iraqis and the world — if the United States pulled out prematurely and left chaos behind.

Bush has said that his objective in Iraq is to “prevail.” Since he regards Iraq as the “central front in the war on terrorism,” and since his goal is to “win” that war, he seems more likely to persevere than Kerry is.

Kerry’s NYU speech contained a four-point “plan” for Iraq, which Bush declared that he’s already been pursuing: seeking help from allies, speeding the reconstruction and the training of Iraqi forces, and planning elections to transfer full sovereignty to the Iraqis.

At the United Nations, French President Jacques Chirac made it clear that France will supply no troops, regardless of who wins the election. Kerry says that more troops are needed to prevent Islamic terrorists from entering Iraq.

So who will provide them? It would be fair to charge, as some critics of Bush have, that the United States needs more troops in Iraq. But Kerry has gone out of his way to say that, while he’d increase the overall size of the U.S. Armed Forces, they would not go to Iraq.

Kerry has also criticized Bush for spending $200 billion on Iraq — money that could be used for health care and education. But how much would he budget? He doesn’t say.

Nor has he explained how he would handle the escalating insurgency in Sunni areas that are likely to make holding elections difficult. Would he launch an all-out offensive, as Bush seems to be planning? Or would he hang back, as Bush has done so far?

The situation in Iraq is clearly getting worse. The Islamic savages beheading Westerners and killing U.S. soldiers clearly want to force the United States out and score a strategic victory for terrorism. Who’d be the better commander in chief to stop them? Kerry still has not made the case that he’s the one.