No Way Out

Bipartisan agreement on no-exit strategy


So John Kerry gave the speech of his campaign last night, at least on paper.

Speaking to an audience at New York University yesterday, the Democratic presidential candidate laid into George W. Bush's Iraq policy with rare concision, energy, and clarity. Agree or not with the guy's points, reading through the text of the speech, you don't hate the guy the way you do while wading through his labored, repetitive, bombastic, and ultimately candy-assed justification for authorizing force to unseat Saddam Hussein. That October 2002 spiel was every bit as muddy and quagmirish as a Vietnamese rice paddy, a figurative journey to the heart not of darkness but of political windbaggery, cover-your-ass rhetoric, and general fecklessness. It was like his wife's convention speech, only even more tedious and, because it was on an issue of absolute importance, that much more disturbing.

The NYU speech has a different ring to it. "In fighting the war on terrorism, my principles are straight forward. The terrorists are beyond reason. We must destroy them. As president, I will do whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat our enemies," said Kerry, who made it clear that he thinks Iraq was a clear and present misstep in fighting the war on terror: "The greatest threat we face is the possibility Al Qaeda or other terrorists will get their hands on a nuclear weapon."

He even managed—arguably months too late—to figure out a way to square his post-service opposition to the Vietnam War with his claims that his military record meant he should be commander-in-chief.

"It is never easy to discuss what has gone wrong while our troops are in constant danger," he told the crowd. "But it's essential if we want to correct our course and do what's right for our troops instead of repeating the same mistakes over and over again. I know this dilemma first-hand. After serving in war, I returned home to offer my own personal voice of dissent. I did so because I believed strongly that we owed it to those risking their lives to speak truth to power. We still do."

Kerry unveiled a four-point plan about how to fix Iraq—a program that is about as specific as you can get at this time. He pledges to beef up the "international support" that seems to be the Holy Grail for both Bush and Kerry; to move faster in training native Iraqi forces; to put into place reconstruction projects that will bring "tangible benefits" to the Iraqi people; and we "must take immediate, urgent, essential steps to guarantee the promised elections can be held next year." Note that he didn't discuss the war in Iraq in light of ostensibly foregone spending on domestic programs. In a sign that he's getting serious, he didn't bemoan that the $200 billion (or whatever) meant less money for VISTA volunteers or subsidizing tobacco growers.

Suspend for a moment all the obvious questions about such a to-do list. Exactly how, for instance, will any U.S. president get troops from other countries to suit up and jump into a situation that Kerry himself says is a "mess"? To paraphrase the candidate's line from his protest days, who's going to be the first man to die for that mistake? Don't bother to ask the old credibility question about this latter-day JFK: What the hell did he think about Iraq in between his vote to authorize force to depose Saddam Hussein in the fall of October 2002 and yesterday's speech?

Kerry's speech hits all the right notes, so much so that it led to an obvious Bush rejoinder that the Massachusetts senator was simply listing "exactly what we're currently doing."

And that in the end may be all it amounts to: That Kerry will continue the status quo in Iraq. But Kerry's "we'll pay any price" rhetoric combines with recent speculation that the Bush team is thinking about making a very quick exit to set up a stranger-than-strange scenario: If you want the hell out of Iraq, you should vote for Bush. As Tim Cavanaugh has suggested, Bush, as the person who got into war, will have an easier time declaring victory and getting out, especially with a Republican Congress ready and willing to play along (and with an increasing number of Senate Republicans, including Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, Arizona's John McCain, and South Carolina's Lindsay Graham openly critical of current Iraq policy).

As important, it would be far more difficult for Kerry, as the vague "anti-war" candidate, to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere, lest he be seen as weak on terror and military might in general. Leave aside for the moment the not inconsiderable question of how such moves might affect his ability to push any domestic agenda items. Despite Bob Dole's old barbs about "Democrat wars," the Democrats, rightly or wrongly, are seen as weak on defense. That may well lead to a need on Kerry's part to show more muscle than not.

This campaign got underway in something approaching a Bizarro universe, with Republicans crowing about nation-building (or even region-building) and runaway spending on every possible social program, things generally associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Democratic Party. And the Dems, taking a page from the GOP playbook, were lamenting budget deficits and foreign interventions that were to a significant degree justified on humanitarian grounds (the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are better off now that their homegrown despots are gone). With a little more than a month to go, those sides seem to be flipping again. That may be the only constant thing in Election 2004.