Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Talking Sense on Iraq

NY Times
September 21, 2004
Talking Sense, at Last, on Iraq

After weeks of politically damaging delay, John Kerry finally seems to have found his voice on what ought to be the central issue of this year's election: the mismanaged war in Iraq and how to bring it to an acceptable conclusion. It was none too soon. While the fate of the Iraqi people, the success of the war on terrorism and America's international standing have all been teetering ominously in the balance, Mr. Kerry has allowed the presidential campaign to veer off into squabbles about events long past - like the candidates' 30-year-old war records - and about Mr. Kerry's confusing and sometimes contradictory recent statements on foreign policy.

Speaking in New York yesterday, Mr. Kerry laid out a well-grounded, intellectually straightforward and powerful critique of the Bush administration's past mistakes in Iraq. He gave a coherent explanation for his vote two years ago to authorize President Bush to use military force, making a clear distinction between how the White House should have used that authority to maximize international pressure against Saddam Hussein and the self-isolating course it actually followed. And, for the first time since becoming a presidential nominee, he explicitly said that he would never have supported the invasion of an Iraq that did not possess weapons of mass destruction.

Even more important, he linked his criticisms to a set of alternative policies, which, while not entirely new to those who have closely followed his campaign statements, offer the best chance for retrieving a situation that daily grows more dangerous for Iraqis, Americans and a volatile region. As Mr. Kerry correctly noted, "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure."

This should signal the start of the kind of serious and useful debate the American people deserve. Unfortunately, Mr. Bush still declines to even acknowledge the disastrous condition the war has fallen into, preferring simply to assert over and over that the course there is now firmly set for a democratic and stable future. Democrats who question these Pollyannaish projections are almost instantly slapped down as unpatriotic underminers of military morale.

That was the president's reflexive response to Mr. Kerry yesterday, coupled with the preposterous claim that Mr. Kerry's plan for a much more broadly internationalized effort is no different from the administration's own American-fought, American-paid-for and American-directed approach. It is encouraging to see that Republican foreign policy heavyweights like Senators Chuck Hagel, Richard Lugar and John McCain are now also asking tough questions about the way the war is going. It is surely no service to America's brave fighting men and women, who know firsthand what they are facing, for Mr. Bush to pretend otherwise and to refuse to consider policy changes that might help them prevail and come home.

Turning things around at this late date will not be easy, but the president could make a beginning today, when he addresses an audience of world leaders at the United Nations. Mr. Kerry set the stage when he urged Mr. Bush to convene a summit meeting of those leaders to build a truly international effort to protect the elections, train Iraqi security forces and create a broader-based, more effective reconstruction effort.

Perhaps the presidential campaign is finally under way.